Friday, August 26, 2011

At night, he slept in a bed in the back of his pickup truck. By day, he rode on horseback three miles per hour across the state of Iowa.

This was 80-year-old cowboy Bill Taylor's summer odyssey to raise money for Alzheimer's research at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

Taylor, of Millersburg, Iowa, began his 259-mile journey June 6 in Grandview, along the Mississippi River, and followed Highway 92 – featuring plenty of rain and a little heat – to Council Bluffs. The trip took 11 days.

“The weather was not exactly cooperative; we had a lot of rain. But all of that is part of it,” Taylor said. “I believe it was a successful trip. The people who know me knew that I could probably do it. Those people who said, 'He's 80 years old, he can't do it, he'll never make it,' judged me on how they felt.

“The way I feel and the physical condition I'm in, I can ride across the nation."

His inspiration for the trip came from watching several friends suffer from Alzheimer's.

"I had two good friends pass away from Alzheimer's," said Taylor, a Korean War veteran and former Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association announcer. "I will do anything I can to raise funds for Alzheimer's research. I see what these people go through. Who knows? I might get it next month."

According to the latest U.S. Census, Iowa has an estimated 444,457 residents age 65 or older. And, according to the Alzheimer's Association, an estimated 69,000 Iowans age 65 and older suffer from Alzheimer's disease, which means one of every six people age 65 and older in Iowa have the disease.

That harsh reality highlights the importance of the research of UI professor Daniel Tranel and his colleagues at UI Hospitals and Clinics. Tranel has been conducting research on Alzheimer's since the early 1980s, but the disease still has no cure, and no known cause.

"Many neurological diseases occur in older people. People are routinely living into their 70s, 80s and 90s and that's where those diseases tend to be most prevalent," said Tranel, professor of neurology and psychology and director of the interdisciplinary neuroscience graduate program. "And we are facing an enormous increase in numbers of people afflicted by conditions like Alzheimer's disease. The fact that the Baby Boomer Generation is about to go into those years is a big health issue, a major health issue."

Tranel’s research focuses on diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s.

“We use sophisticated, detailed neuropsychological tests to measure people’s functional abilities to make accurate predictions about challenging questions such as whether people can drive, live independently, handle their finances, and deal with medical decisions,” Tranel said. “Our testing is not just for diagnosing that they have Alzheimer’s. It goes well beyond that ‑‑ it’s about what this disease means in terms of day-to-day function.

“And for developing effective treatments, early diagnosis is critical. When people are in the clinic and are already out of commission, it’s too late. We need to find things early on, maybe before people are even symptomatic. Also, we need to focus on prevention -- healthy lifestyles, ‘exercising our brains’ --that might stave off the disease process."

In February 2011, Taylor came to the neurology clinic at UI Hospitals and Clinics -- without an appointment -- asking to speak with Tranel. Taylor was prepared to wait all day if necessary, but he was able to meet with Tranel after only 30 minutes and quickly sold him on his unconventional idea.

So much so that Tranel, a horseman himself and a Montana native, rode alongside Taylor for the first few hours on June 6. They were joined by UI graduate students Ashton McNutt and Annie Tye, both accomplished horsewomen.

Taylor rode 20 to 26 miles per day on his horse Liberty, a 17-year-old quarter horse-Arabian mix, until they reached Council Bluffs. They took Sunday off to rest.

With an Army buddy and his wife hauling his horse trailer from town to town, Taylor expected to have a successful trip, and he did.

For more information about how donations can support Taylor’s effort and advance the University’s Alzheimer’s research, contact Donna Welter, UI Graduate College, 205C GILH, Iowa City, IA52242.