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Jack Hanna's family opens up about his Alzheimer's diagnosis, saying he doesn't know most of his family

Jack Hanna's family recently spoke about his Alzheimer's diagnosis for the first time publicly. The zookeeper and media personality's family spoke to The Columbus Dispatch about the disease, which affects cognitive function and memory, saying it has progressed to the point where Hanna doesn't know most of his family.

Hanna, who served as director of the Columbus Zoo from 1978 to 1992, first had symptoms of the disease in 2017. The 76-year-old had a long career as media personality, appearing as an animal expert on talk shows and hosting his own syndicated shows like "Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures."

Jack Hanna
Jack Hanna at the National Wildlife Federation Voices for Wildlife 75th Anniversary Gala on June 15, 2011 in Beverly Hills, California.  John Shearer/WireImage via Getty Images

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, a term that describes a group of symptoms including memory loss and loss of other cognitive abilities, according to the Alzheimer's Association. While it mainly affects adults 65 and older, it is not a normal part of aging. The disease usually progresses, with late-stage Alzheimer's patients sometimes unable to carry on a conversation. 

About 55 million people in the world have Alzheimer's, and there is no direct cause but genetics may be a factor, according to the association. There is no cure for the disease, but there are treatments such as medication, which Hanna's family says he takes to help combat symptoms. 

This year, an experimental Alzheimer's drug by Eli Lilly, donanemab, showed 35% less decline in thinking skills in patients receiving the infusions. 

The Hanna family said in tweets they welcomed the Dispatch into their Montana home "for a real-world look into living with Alzheimer's disease."

"While Dad/Jack is still mobile, his mind fails him, the light in his eyes has dimmed, and we miss who he was each & every moment of the day," they wrote. 

Hanna was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2019, and retired from the zoo in 2020, shortly after his final stage performance with animals. 

"He would have worked until the day he died. He only retired due to the Alzheimer's," his daughter, Kathaleen, told the Dispatch. "He was embarrassed by it. He lived in fear the public would find out."

Hanna's wife, Suzi, said he didn't want the public finding out about his diagnosis. But in 2021 — after the Columbus Zoo, which he was no longer directing, faced problems that included losing its main accreditation — some sought a response from Hanna. So, the family decided to reveal his diagnosis to the public. 

Suzi said it "killed her" to break her promise and go public about his diagnosis. But still, Hanna doesn't know his family told the public, they said. 

Before his diagnosis, Hanna showed signs of memory loss – sometimes forgetting what city he was in or the names of animals he had with him during stage performances.

Since then, his Alzheimer's has advanced, his family said. "He just stopped remembering who I was in all ways," his daughter, Suzanne, said on the phone during the Dispatch interview. "Whether it was in person or by phone, he had no idea I was his daughter."

When his other daughter, Julie, was diagnosed with a tumor, Hanna didn't fully understand what was happening to her.

Kathaleen explained why the family is now sharing his story. 

"If this helps even one other family, it's more than worth sharing dad's story," she said. "He spent a lifetime helping everyone he could. He will never know it or understand it, but he is still doing it now."

The family said on Twitter they have no plans for additional interviews. 

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