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Sonja and Robert Willman

When Alzheimer's Disease Hits Home

We want to help others going through the same thing. Thanks to the research, we realized there is hope for our children—researchers are making progress in Alzheimer's disease.

When Robert Willman saw Sonja from across their college bookstore, his first thought was “She is beautiful. That is the girl I want to marry.” 

Today, more than 50 years later, Robert and Sonja are happily married with two children and are expecting their first grandchild.

While life has been good for the Willmans overall, recent years have brought new challenges. In 2014, Sonja was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Despite the diagnosis, she couldn’t quite believe it. “I thought it was crazy,” she says. “I can remember a lot of things. It just didn’t seem right. I didn’t feel like I had Alzheimer’s.” 

To better help his wife now and in the future as the disease progresses, Robert began seeking more information about Alzheimer’s disease. When they discovered the volume of Alzheimer’s disease research taking place at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, the Willmans were amazed. “We are so fortunate to be near the foremost centers for Alzheimer’s disease research,” Robert says. “Some of the most groundbreaking research is taking place right here, in our backyard.” 

Life-Changing Research 

In the early 1980s, researchers were just beginning to understand that Alzheimer’s disease was a specific brain disease. John C. Morris, MD, joined Washington University School of Medicine in 1982 and immediately set his focus on studying dementia caused by Alzheimer’s. Today, he directs the Knight Alzheimer Disease Research Center (ADRC) at Washington University where his research team is leading multiple promising studies including novel strategies to prevent Alzheimer's dementia altogether. 

Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior. It is a progressive disease that worsens over time; it is the most common cause of dementia. Contrary to common belief, Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging. While a majority of patients are over 65, almost 200,000 Americans under the age of 65 have early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. 

At one point, Alzheimer’s was believed to start when dementia took hold. Dr. Morris and his team have identified proteins that allow the disease to be diagnosed before dementia ever occurs. “The future of Alzheimer’s disease research is to add prevention of dementia to the current attempts to treat the disorder after the dementia has appeared,” Dr. Morris says. “The very first prevention trial in the world with a drug designed to stop the Alzheimer process in the brain began at the Knight ADRC in 2012. New advances are detecting the illness in the brain with people who have no memory or cognitive issues. We would like to find a way to initiate therapies as early as possible to delay or prevent the onset of dementia." 

The Willmans quickly learned that Alzheimer’s disease research is terribly underfunded. As a result, they chose to make a difference by donating to The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital to support this research. 

“We want to help others going through the same thing,” Robert says. “Thanks to the research, we realized there is hope for our children—researchers are making progress.” 

Dr. Morris says research support from donors is critical for progress. “Donations from individuals allow us to perform the full scope of our proposed research. Philanthropy allows researchers to pursue new avenues immediately, without having to wait up to two years for funding approval from the National Institutes of Health. That’s why donor support is vital to moving the research forward faster.” 

Robert and Sonja remain positive and hopeful, even as Sonja’s symptoms progress. But Robert recognizes more needs to be done to help patients and families who struggle with Alzheimer’s. “Alzheimer’s is a disease people don’t talk about,” he says. “It’s looked at with embarrassment and a lack of knowledge. But it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Alzheimer’s is impacting more and more people every day. I want people to talk about it more so the research can continue.”