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Gordie Howe raising funds to support dementia research

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Gordie Howe is embarking on another series of fundraisers to support research into dementia, a form of which killed his wife, Colleen, in 2009.

At 83, Howe is going through his own struggles against advancing age -- though son Marty cautioned Thursday against improperly describing his father's condition.

Speaking at a news conference inside the Pacific Coliseum, where the WHL’s Vancouver Giants plan to honor his father at a game Friday night, Marty Howe said he wanted to set the record straight over Mr. Hockey’s current state of health.

"I just want to clear up one thing, it's really not dementia," Marty said. "It may turn into it. … Basically his brain doesn't function properly because of past injuries."

Marty Howe also disputed a published story that said that his father was in failing health with dementia.

"I've been getting sympathy notes and all kinds of remedy things all day long -- people think he's going to die tomorrow, and he's not," Marty said in a story posted on the Detroit Red Wings' website. "Gordie's doing fine. He's probably healthier than I am on a treadmill, his pulse never gets over 60. The man's a horse. As far as doing things like his (press conferences) it's hard on him now. He'd rather not do it.''

Gordie Howe, who rarely does media interviews anymore, did not speak at Thursday's news conference.

Doctors also told the Howe family that Gordie may have had a mini-stroke when he was the primary caregiver for his wife, Colleen, during the years leading up to her death at age 76 from Pick’s disease, a rare form of dementia that's marked by changes in mood, behavior and personality -- followed by memory loss similar to that experienced in Alzheimer's disease.

"It's a lot of pressure on the body and he wanted to try to do what he could do by himself," Marty said. "We had to talk him into getting some help. During that time he had a couple of episodes where he had loss of memory. The doctors, and us, all feel it was probably from a mini-stroke."

Another son, Murray, a radiologist, says his father's symptoms don't fit either Alzheimer's or Pick's.

"He has what we call mild cognitive impairment," Murray said. "His brain power is not what it used to be. In terms of the prognosis and diagnosis, it's still wide open."

Howe has short-term memory loss, difficulty speaking and some confusion in the evening when the sun goes down. The latter, called "sundowning," occurs in people with dementia, although the cause is unclear.

But Howe's personality, according to Marty, hasn't changed and he continues to recognize his family and friends.

While the long-term effects of concussions have been very much in the news lately, the family is hesitant to link the Hall of Famer's condition to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease found in autopsies of  some people who have had multiple head injuries.

Concussions weren't tracked when Howe played, so it is impossible to know how many he sustained. He also sustained a severe head injury in Game 1 of the 1950 Stanley Cup Playoffs that forced doctors to drill a three-inch hole in his skull to relieve pressure that had built on his brain.

"It all adds up," Marty Howe said. "Earlier in his career, when he had his head injury, anybody who had a three-quarter (inch) hole drilled in their head is going to have some affects at some time," Marty said. "He's done well all these years. It's been a slow process in the memory loss but most older people are running into that."

Asked about Howe's condition prior to the Wings' game in Vancouver on Thursday night, Detroit coach Mike Babcock said he sees him "all the time."

"What do you want me to tell you? It's just one of those things that he's getting older," Babcock said.

"We still love having him around, he likes coming around, he's a joy to talk to every time I see him, whether it be him, Mr. (Ted) Lindsay, Mr. (Alex) Delvecchio, or any of those guys that are around. They are living legends, and when you grew up in Saskatoon like I did and played hockey outside Gordie Howe Bowl, and you hung out with Bruce Clark, his nephew, you've known who Gordie is for a long time and he's still a hero of mine today."

After Colleen Howe's death, the Howes were approached by the Toronto health organization Baycrest to put Gordie Howe's face on a fundraising campaign for Alzheimer's.

Affiliated with the University of Toronto, Baycrest specializes in mental diseases of the elderly.

Howe, accompanied by Marty, makes public appearances at an annual series of Scotiabank Pro-Am hockey tournaments across Canada. More than $16 million has been raised by the Gordie and Colleen Howe Fund for Alzheimer's.

Howe is scheduled to attend a Canucks game in Vancouver on Thursday night to promote a Scotiabank Pro-Am in that city later this year. Marty says his father plans to help kick off the same tournaments in Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto this spring.

Marty and Murray Howe are just grateful their father's personality or attitude hasn't changed as yet.

"Overall, he's healthy as a rock," Marty said at the press conference. "We'll continue to do this (make appearances) as long as he's able to. He's doing well, for being 84 next month. I don't know what you expect mentally from somebody. He's not as well as he could be, but he's still going fine."
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