‘Car Talk’ Host’s Death Illuminates Alzheimer’s

Tom and Ray “Turns out he wasn’t kidding,” said Ray. “He really couldn’t remember last week’s puzzler.” (1) On Monday Tom Magliozzi, co-host of NPR’s ‘Car Talk’ died of Alzheimer’s disease. For his many fans the dreaded disorder suddenly became personal. For many, it comes as a shock to learn that the mind-robbing disease can be fatal.

The passing of Tom Magliozzi, ‘Click or maybe he was Clack’ of NPR’s radio show ‘Car Talk’ is a bitter sweet moment, like the time my 72 VW bus threw a rod returning home to Bethesda, Maryland from a summer at Woods Hole, Marine Biology Lab right after we took a slight diversion to visit the Martin Guitar Factory in Nazareth, PA. Saddened by the abrupt ending, but grateful for the many years of joy and meandering adventures the bus had brought us. Over the years Tom and Ray entertained and enlightened us with their care-free witty banter about ailing cars and just as often faltering human relationships and they did it with obvious brotherly love. These were two guys you wanted to hang out with. They were fun and interesting, and you always seemed to learn something from them. With Tom’s death on Monday, I think he probably enlightened more people than anyone about the fact that Alzheimer’s disease can be fatal. It is perplexing that such a leading cause of death in the United States should be unknown as a potentially deadly disease to so many.

“I like to drive with the windows open. I mean, before you know it, you’re going to spend plenty of time sealed up in a box anyway, right?” (2)

Well, I hope so, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we learn that the practical joking brothers utilized Tom’s Dodge Dart in lieu of a traditional casket. Can you hear that infectious laughter?

If you don’t know Tom and Ray you will rightfully be offended by my unsanctimonious tone. But Tom was a guy who cared about things that mattered and he cared about the science of how things work. This is a guy whose favorite remedy for an idiot light that would not shut off was to cover it with a piece of black electrical tape. Pay attention to the things that matter. And no matter how seemingly ordinary the car repair question might be, Tom loved to take the scientific approach, beginning with first principles of physics to develop a complete understanding of what went wrong. So Tom would want you to know that people do die of Alzheimer’s and to understand how. Ray would groan and wait out the scientific explanation, but here it is:

Everyone knows that Alzheimer’s disease erodes memory, causes confusion, ultimately robs one of their personality and in the end can render them a terrified lost stranger in their own world, but the disease also damages other parts of the brain. This can include parts of the brain controlling vital functions, such as breathing, swallowing, and heartbeat. A study published in the journal Neurology earlier this year concluded that deaths from Alzheimer’s disease were greatly under-reported. The CDC had estimated Alzheimer’s as the sixth most common cause of death, but the new research places Alzheimer’s as the third leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer. “You can’t fix it,” Tom would say. There is no cure; not even a treatment that will arrest the disease once it is diagnosed. The odds of getting Alzheimer’s disease at age 85 are 50:50.

Even in leaving us, Tom enlightens.

To Ray, and the many friends and family, we share your loss, but also your blessing. According to the Car Talk website, “The family asks that in lieu flowers, or rotten fruit, fans of Tom make a donation in his memory to either their local NPR station or the Alzheimer’s Association. (3)

Write your condolences on the back of a $20 bill and send them to NPR: http://www.npr.org/stations/donate/ or to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America: http://www.alzfdn.org/ContributetoAFA/makeadonation.html

James, B.D. et. al., (2014) Contribution of Alzheimer disease to mortality in the United States. Neurology 82:1-6.
(1) http://www.npr.org/2014/11/03/357428287/tom-magliozzi-popular-co-host-of-nprs-car-talk-dies-at-77
(2) http://www.cartalk.com/blogs/staff-blog/quotable-tom-magliozzi
(3) http://www.cartalk.com/blogs/staff-blog/tom-magliozzi-1937-2014.
50:50 odds at age 85 see: http://www.alz.org/