June 16, 2022

West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis announces early-onset Alzheimer's diagnosis

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West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis spoke to reporters Thursday about his diagnosis. - Ben Thorp/WBAA

West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis spoke to reporters Thursday about his diagnosis.

Ben Thorp/WBAA

West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis announced Thursday he has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

That diagnosis has led Dennis – who has served as mayor since 2007 – to decide not to run for reelection, instead stepping down at the end of 2023 when his current term runs out.

Dennis, who is 63 years old, said he began noticing deficiencies in his memory a couple of years ago, but wrote it off.

“It was the kind of stuff that as you get to be in your late 50s, early 60s, you just assume is the natural progression of aging,” he said. “But it started to become more and more of a problem.”

The memory issues progressed to a degree that prompted Dennis to visit a neurologist, and – after some analysis – he received his diagnosis.

“My family time has become more precious with each passing day,” he said. “I’m doing fine, but this put the importance of my family and friends and my quality of life at the forefront now and for the future.”

In the meantime, Dennis said that he is taking medication and hopes to continue serving in his role as the city’s leader. He has begun reducing time spent in the office, and plans to delegate some of his mayoral work to other staff.

“My day-to-day involvement will be a little less and some of it will be virtual,” he said. “I’ll be here at least three days a week.”

Dennis acknowledged that his diagnosis comes with some stigma attached, but underlined he feels capable of continuing to serve in his role as mayor.

“Something I cannot stress enough is that it's early days, it’s early-onset,” he said. “That is the best bad news you can have.”

Dennis said that in his fifteen years in office, he’s honed a leadership style that will continue to be effective as he scales back some of his responsibilities.

“My leadership style has always been participative,” Dennis said. “I empower my department heads to run their departments. They are all amazing experts in their field. Generally speaking, they are the tips of the spear.”

Nationally, the Alzheimer's Association estimates that about 1 in 9 people over the age of 65 have Alzheimer's dementia. There’s less known about the number of people below the age of 65 who have been diagnosed with the disease.

And according to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of Americans living with Alzheimer's is expected to nearly triple by 2060.

Dennis said his mother also came down with Alzheimer’s in her 60s, something that required him to become a caretaker until she died in her 80s.

“I don’t feel I’m in that condition right now,” he said. “Being able to detect it at this stage allows for the treatment, the medication I’m taking, to slow the progress.”

Dennis said the timeline for the progression of the disease isn’t clear.

“Exploring the worst, negative, hypothetical if this should get extremely aggressive and put me in a position where it affects my decision making, it affects me physically, it affects my cognitive ability, that will obviously change my timeline,” he said. “But I’m on medication and it has one job only – to slow the progress of Alzheimer's.”

If Dennis has to step down, a replacement would be caucused in by the local Republican party.

While holding back tears, Dennis said the progression will be difficult not just for family but for a community that has known him for his entire life.

“There are people in this community that have known me all my life. They’ve known me since I was a little kid since I was a little brat… they are part of my family,” he said. “There are no guarantees how this progresses. One thing I know for sure is that it will be as painful for me to experience the loss of memories that I cherish so dearly as it will be for those who love me to watch me decline.”

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