Leah Robbie Leads the Fight to End Alzheimer’s Disease


Allison Baroni, Feature's Editor

Senior Leah Robbie may have been in the midst of college touring, but it was high school she was thinking about. She just didn’t feel that she had made her mark on Pres yet. Lying in bed one night, she suddenly thought of what she wanted to do—form a Presentation High School Team for the 2016 Walk to End Alzheimer’s.

Robbie, whose dad passed away in May of 2015 after an almost 10-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease, has done the walk for years. Back when her family lived in Seattle at the beginning of her dad’s diagnosis, she, her mom, her sister, her dad and a bunch of his friends participated in a Walk to End Alzheimer’s.

She has continued walking ever since, although five years after his diagnosis her father was no longer able to participate. This year, she had hoped to bring other Pres girls together to walk for a disease that has affected so many, young and old. “I kinda thought what a great way to honor him and to kinda leave my mark on Pres,” said Robbie. The walk took place in Downtown San Jose last Saturday, October 8.

Alzheimer’s disease affects the brain’s memory, thinking and behavioral functions. It is a progressive form of dementia that is often characterized by severe memory loss. The sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., more people die of Alzheimer’s than breast and prostate cancer combined.

Symptoms worsen as time goes on, impeding a person’s ability to function in daily life. Once symptoms become obvious—memory loss, etc.—the average life-expectancy of a person is about eight years. Although there is treatment available, Alzheimer’s currently does not have a cure.

Younger–onset Alzheimer’s is similar but affects people under the age of 65. Often, they are adults in their 40s and 50s when diagnosed. About 5% of people suffering from Alzheimer’s have younger onset, a total of around 200,000 people across the U.S.

This was what Robbie’s father was diagnosed with. He received his diagnosis early on because he was a trauma doctor in an emergency room. “We had a lot of really good years, where he was at home because he couldn’t work,” Robbie said. “We traveled a lot, but then he went into assisted living.”

When he was first diagnosed, Robbie recalls she and her sister just didn’t understand what Alzheimer’s was. Her dad eventually sat them down and explained it simply: “Look,” he said, “I’m just going to begin to anti-age.”

That clicked, and even now looking back she doesn’t know how he came up with that phrase. “It was such a great comparison,” Robbie said. “And for that to come from the guy who has dementia himself…that was just his character.”

Like with all Alzheimer’s, his disease was progressive. “It started with little things, like, forgetting our names or like where he put his keys,” Robbie said. “He kind of just morphed into a guy he wasn’t.”

Robbie started putting together the team right after she conceived it that night in bed. She first contacted Dean of Students Peggy Schrader, whom Robbie said has always been a wonderful support to her family. Schrader was immediately supportive of her idea. Within a week, Robbie was advertising the walk and “Team Pres” to students in the bulletin.

Student response was immediate. When Robbie first sent out an email advertising to students, she immediately got back 20 responses. While she hadn’t been expecting such an enthusiastic response, Robbie was thrilled.

However, she instantly knew that she was going to have to figure out a new way to organize the team that would not take too much time. Originally, she had been planning on registering each interested person herself, but wasn’t able to do that with such great numbers. Luckily, she found that the Alzheimer’s Association had a great way to organize a team page that can be shared with others and allow them to register themselves.

A competitive gymnast who trains 12 hours a week, Robbie had just had shoulder surgery and was in physical therapy, so she identifies with many a busy Pres girl.

“It’s definitely a lot on my plate, but I wouldn’t want it any other way,” said Robbie. “It’s something that’s so important to me that I just kinda have to remember I’m doing it for my dad and I’m doing it for Pres, like, two of the things I love most.”

Robbie also created the team to highlight the disease’s prevalence among women. Although there are various theories as to why, almost ⅔ of people with Alzheimer’s are women. According to a March 2014 study published by the Alzheimer’s Association, by age 65 women have a 1 in 6 chance of developing Alzheimer’s (compared to 1 in 11 for men of the same age).

Just like with any other illness, Robbie believes that awareness is really important. “The awareness needs to be there, because it’s not going to get a cure if nobody knows about it,” she said. “It’s really about the awareness for me.”

And awareness pays off. Robbie is optimistic for the future of Alzheimer’s research, pointing to progress that has been made and treatments to slow the effects that are already available.

Every bit counts, and this Walk to End Alzheimer’s will contribute to finding the one day cure.  Overall, Robbie thought it was a successful day.

“It was really great to see everyone come together, and walk for such an important cause,” Robbie said. “We had a great turnout, [and a] great amount of donations came in, so it was just really successful.”

It goes without saying that Robbie has made her mark not just on Pres but also on Alzheimer’s Awareness. “Now,” Robbie said, “it’s something that we have to change instead of something that we have to hide.”