Tuesday Tips for Caregivers – The First Person Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s
Auguste Deter (May 16, 1850 – April 8, 1906) was the first person diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She married Karl Deter in the 1880s and together they had one daughter. Auguste had a normal life. However, during the late 1890s, she started showing symptoms of dementia, such as: loss of memory, delusions, and even temporary vegetative states.
She would have trouble sleeping, would drag sheets across the house, and even scream for hours in the middle of the night.
Karl could not take it anymore. Being a railway worker, he had to admit her to a mental institution so that he could continue to work. He brought her to the Institution for the Mentally Ill and for Epileptics in Frankfurt, Germany on November 25, 1901 where she was examined by Dr. Alois Alzheimer. He asked her many questions, and later asked again to see if she remembered. He told her to write her name. She tried to, but would forget the rest and repeat, “I have lost myself.” He later put her in an isolation room for a while. When he released her, she would run out screaming, “I do not cut myself. I will not cut myself.” Her words have been commemorated in an important work, commissioned by the Susquehanna Valley Chorale, composed by Robert Cohen and librettist Herschel Garfein, entitled “Alzheimer Stories”.
After many years, she became completely demented, muttering to herself. she died on April 8, 1906. More than a century later, her case was re-examined with modern medical technologies, where a genetic cause was found for her disease by scientists from Sydney. The results were published in the journal The Lancet Neurology. According to this paper, a mutation in the PSEN1 gene was found, which alters the function of gamma secretase, and is a known cause of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer concluded that she had no sense of time or place. She could barely remember details of her life and frequently gave answers that had nothing to do with the question and was incoherent. Her moods changed rapidly between anxiety, mistrust, withdrawal and whininess. They could not let her wander around the wards because she would accost other patients who would then assault her. It was not the first time that Alzheimer has seen a complete degeneration of the psyche in patients, but previously the patients had been in their 70s. Deter piqued his curiosity because she was much younger. In the weeks following, he continued to question her and record her responses. She frequently responded, “Oh God!” and, “I have lost myself, so to say.” She seemed to be consciously aware of her helplessness. Alzheimer called it the “Disease of Forgetfulness”.
In 1902, Alzheimer left the “Irrenschloss” (Castle of the Insane), as the Institution was known colloquially, to take up a position in Munich but he made frequent calls to Frankfurt inquiring about Deter’s condition. On April 9, 1906, Alzheimer received a call from Frankfurt that Auguste Deter has died. He requested that her medical records and brain be sent to him. Her chart recorded that in the last years of her life, her condition had deteriorated considerably. Her death was the result of sepsis caused by an infected bedsore. On examining her brain, he found senile plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. These would be the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease as scientists know it today.
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