Five Questions With: Donna M. McGowan

Donna McGowan serves as executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Named to the position in 2010, McGowan manages the chapter’s operations by overseeing its staff, volunteers and board of directors, along with keeping track of its budget and fundraising. She discusses the chapter’s public awareness campaign taking place throughout June, which is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month.

PBN: June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. What is most important for Rhode Islanders to be aware of when it comes to brain health?

MCGOWAN: The 10 early warning signs of cognitive impairment should be something that should definitely be considered: they include memory loss that disrupts daily life; challenges in planning or solving problems; trouble with familiar tasks; confusion with time or place; difficulty with understanding visual images or spacial relationships; new problems with words in speaking or writing; misplacing things or being unable to trace your steps; decreased judgement; withdrawal from work or other activities; and changes in mood or personality.

PBN: How does the Rhode Island chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association work with other organizations throughout the state?

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MCGOWAN: We partner with many organizations; town, city and government officials; and private companies to provide programming to those impacted and provide education. That includes our Caregiver’s Journey Conference, our community-support groups, educational workshops held at community senior centers, our Walks to End Alzheimer’s, and other community locations and programs in English and Spanish.

PBN: How important is care planning for Alzheimer’s patients, and why are so few people receiving it?

MCGOWAN: Care planning is vitally important because it will significantly improve the quality of life for patients and caregivers long-term. Individuals will need to have enough funds in order to pay for hospital bills and other medical expenses associated with the disease, to make sure the home is properly equipped for at-home living when someone has dementia, and safeguards and other considerations put in place as someone progresses through the disease. Most people don’t believe every day that they will have dementia or be put in the role of being a caregiver, so they just don’t have all of the resources they need.

PBN: Longtime major league baseball player Bill Buckner battled Lewy Body Dementia before passing away on May 27. Has his fight against the disease and death at age 69 created opportunities to spread awareness about Alzheimer’s and dementia?

MCGOWAN: Bill Buckner was young; only 69. His story certainly shows that dementia does not just affect people who are older than a certain age. There are approximately 200,000 people that are 65 years or younger who have younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia. Everyone should be aware of the warning signs and understand cognitive impairment just [as] everyone should understand heart health.

PBN: Researchers in London recently found that getting enough sleep may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Can focusing on healthy sleep patterns help even people who have been sleep-deprived for years?

MCGOWAN: It is never too late to improve your health. Starting new habits of getting enough sleep, eating well, getting exercise, stimulating your brain and trying to reduce stress all have positive impacts on your body. Having a chronic lack of sleep can increase your risks of heart disease, increased blood pressure and other conditions, which all have negative influences on brain function.

Elizabeth Graham is a PBN staff writer. She can be reached at