Alzheimer's Claims Beloved 'Car Talk' Co-Host

Patient Expert

One of my friends often hesitates accepting invitations on Saturday morning. Her real reason - the programming on our local NPR station. She loves to listen to "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," but I think her real obsession has been with "Car Talk." She wasn't alone; at its peak, the show had more than four million listeners each week.

I remember being surprised two years ago when I heard that Tom and Ray Magliozzi decided to end their weekly collaboration as "Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers" on the Peabody Award-winning show.   The program had been broadcast for 35 years and still had a lot of steam in the engine based on the strong base of fans.   At the time of their retirement, Tom was 74 while Ray was 63. When announcing their retirement from the program, the brothers said they€™d be writing their weekly column and contributing regularly to their website. Additionally, taped "Car Talk" episodes are currently being heard on 660 NPR stations and still have an audience of 3.2 million.

We now have a possible reason why the brothers ended their storied radio show -- the sad announcement this week of Tom's death due to complications from Alzheimer's disease at the age of 77.

So to understand why Tom's cognitive abilities seemed to drop so fast after ending the show, we need to understand a little more about his life. Tom was the first person in his family to earn a college degree, which was in chemical engineering from MIT. Initially working as an engineer after graduating from college, Tom changed his career path after being in a near-fatal traffic accident with a tractor-trailer. He ended up becoming a consultant and a college professor and earned a doctoral degree in marketing. In addition, the brothers opened a do-it-yourself repair shop called Hackers Haven in the early 70s and a more traditional car repair shop, the Good News Garage. They ended up on radio by accident.

Who knows when Tom started to experience the signs of dementia, although Ray noted in a blot post about Tom's death that his brother actually must not have been joking when he said he was unable to remember what had happened during the previous week's show. I would guess that Tom's many experiences and higher learning allowed him to function without listeners realizing he was suffering cognitive decline for a long time. "The concept of brain reserves among some highly intelligent people may explain why the disease progression varies from one segment of the affected population to another," Dr. Eric Reymond and Dr. Veronique Fassnacht wrote in a CERN medical article. "However, it appears that such reserves may only serve to mask the onset of the disease, with the result that is diagnosed only when more serious symptoms emerge."

So in Tom's honor and memory, I'd like to remind everyone of the seven stages of this disease that may show up in many people:

  • Stage 1 - No impairment (normal function)
  • Stage 2 - Very mild cognitive decline, which includes memory lapses. In this stage, people may forget familiar words or where an everyday object is located. However, Alzheimer's cannot be detected during a medical examination or by people the person interacts with regularly.
  • Stage 3 - Mild cognitive decline, in which difficulties are noticed. The person may be unable to come up with the right word or name and experience trouble performing tasks in social or work settings, planning and organizing. Doctors may be able to detect cognitive problems at this stage.
  • Stage 4 - Moderate cognitive decline, which includes forgetfulness of recent events, difficulty performing complex mental arithmetic, difficulty performing complex tasks, becoming moody or withdrawn, and becoming forgetful about one's personal history.
  • Stage 5 - Moderately severe cognitive decline, when gaps in memory and thinking are noticeable and the person needs help with day-to-day activities, such as choosing proper clothing for the season and not knowing where they are or the day of the week.
  • Stage 6 - Severe cognitive decline, in which memory worsens, the personality changes, and the individual needs a lot of help with daily activities.
  • Stage 7 - Very severe cognitive decline, in which the person is unable to respond to their environment or carry on a conversation. Eventually the person can no longer control physical movement and will need help with daily personal care. Swallowing becomes impaired, muscles become rigid, and reflexes are lost.

I am sure my friend will be among the many who will listen this weekend when Ray Magliozzi will use the show to offer a tribute to Tom. Additionally, the family has asked that donations be made either to the Alzheimer's Association or an NPR station in memory of Tom.

Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

Alzheimer's Association. (ND). Seven stages of Alzheimer's. (2012). Time to get even lazier. (2014). Tom Magliozzi 1937-2014.

Cohen, N. (2014). Tom Magliozzi, one half of the jovial brothers on 'Car Talk,' dies at 77. New York Times.

Memmott, M. (2012). 'Car Talk' guys are retiring, but their best stuff will be rebroadcast. NPR.

Neary, L. (2014). Tom Magliozzi, popular co-host of NPR's 'Car Talk," dies at 77. NPR.

Reymond, E., & Fassnacht, V. (ND). Alzheimer's disease; Prevention strategies for suffers and their families. CERN Medical Service.