Pastor with Alzheimer's takes the national stage to find a cure

Cynthia Huling Hummel enrolled at Elmira College in 2011, the year she was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, or MCI. The condition marks a decline in cognitive abilities and often precedes Alzheimer's disease.

Last year, at age 62, when her diagnosis showed early-stage Alzheimer’s, she became even more determined to fight the disease — for herself and for others.

Alzheimer’s forced Hummel into early retirement from her career as a pastor. But her advocacy put her in the spotlight, nationally and locally. She is a speaker and advisor with the National Alzheimer's Association; participates in a research study on early detection and tracking of Alzheimer’s; and was interviewed in a 2016 NBC Nightly News segment. Woman’s Day published her story Jan. 13, 2017.

Hummel kayaks, swims, golfs and sings in a band called Country Magic. Last October, she was inducted into the New York State Country Music Hall of Honor.

Hummel’s story and the stories of many others living with Alzheimer’s are significant, said Candace Ryan, who is a co-chair with her husband Bill Ryan for the upcoming Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Canandaigua on Oct 7. Candace said that with so many people affected by Alzheimer’s it is important to know they are not alone and there are ways they can help fight the disease.

The Canandaigua Walk to be held at Granger Homestead will be one of more than 600 held annually in communities nationwide. Funds raised benefit The Alzheimer's Association, a global organization working to advance care, support and research across the world. The association provides face-to-face support, online education programs and worldwide research initiatives.

Considered an epidemic, Alzheimer’s is the only cause of death in the top 10 in America that cannot be prevented, cured or slowed, according to the Alzheimer's Association. One in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, and it is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. More than 5 million Americans are living with the disease.

The fundraising goal for the Canandaigua Walk is $67,569. Plans are up and running. As of Thursday, there were 128 participants and 36 teams with $10,351 raised toward the goal.

Candace urged people to participate. People can sign up to be on a team or make a donation.

Hummel, who is a member of the Early-Stage Committee of the Rochester and Finger Lakes Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, also facilitates a support group for those living with a diagnosis through membership with the Southern Tier Advisory Council and Speakers' Bureau. As she told writer Maria Carter in the Woman’s Day article Jan. 13, the warning signs began when she was 50 and preparing to defend her doctoral thesis at the McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

“Most people in a doctoral program can rattle off the books they've read, but all I could tell you was the first three courses I'd taken," she said. "I could only name one of my professors. I didn't remember any of my fellow students. I would see people whom I knew in the grocery store and walk right by them because I didn't recognize them. It was terrifying because I was in the middle of this program that I'd worked so hard to complete.”

Hummel went from one doctor to another as they tried to determine what was wrong. No one suspected Alzheimer's because she was so young. There were several dead ends as she underwent a slew of tests. One doctor thought her symptoms were from stress of running a parish and raising a family. Another doctor suspected a head injury she sustained as a child, and others blamed menopause or not getting enough sleep.

Then, after moving to a new pastorate in Waverly, Tioga County, and starting over with a new doctor, she described a turning point when the doctor asked her to recall the books of the Old Testament. She knew Genesis but started singing a children's song with the books in order to jog her memory.

“I got only partway through the song before tears started rolling down my face. How could I be a pastor when I couldn't even name the books in the Bible? It would be as if a doctor couldn't remember the bones in the body. The basic building blocks of my faith were gone. I had my doctorate by that point, but I didn't feel smart,” Hummel said in the interview for Woman’s Day.

Hummel was finally diagnosed with MCI in the spring of 2011, at age 57. She eventually had to give up her career as a pastor. Seeing an ad in the local paper for an eight-week course sponsored by the Alzheimer's Association — and signing up — was the first step that led her to where she is today. Along with her involvement with the Alzheimer's Association, she has been in a clinical study for the past six years. She goes for annual cognitive and medical testing, in which researchers look at the physical changes in her brain and compare them with results from her cognitive performance tests in the areas of memory and executive function.

She is not on medication because that would exclude her from the study. She takes care to get enough sleep and to exercise every day, and she eats a plant-based diet that has been shown to slow cognitive decline.

She eats a salad every day, drinks a glass of red wine every night, and eats plenty of of salmon (for omega-3 fatty acids) plus a handful of nuts once or twice a day. She swims three times a week, tracks her steps with a fitness tracker and goes kayaking with friends as often as possible. She audits classes at Elmira College.

As she said for Woman’s Day: “I've taken 30 so far, including French last semester. I usually don't remember squat, but I love it.”

If you go

WHAT: 2017 Walk to End Alzheimer’s Canandaigua

WHEN: Saturday, Oct 7, registration at 9 a.m., walk begins at 10 a.m.

WHERE: Granger Homestead, 295 N. Main St. Canandaigua,

DETAILS: Fundraiser benefits Alzheimer’s Association to advance support, care, and research Join a team or make a donation; visit http://bit.ly/2xnvetq