COLUMBIA — More than 450 people gathered Sunday at Stephens Lake Park with flowers raised above their heads.
Those holding blue flowers were living with Alzheimer's disease. Those holding yellow flowers had been caring for someone with Alzheimer's disease. Those holding purple flowers had lost someone to Alzheimer's disease.
They had gathered at the park to participate in the annual Walk to End Alzheimer's. The walk — around the 1.7 mile perimeter trail around Stephens Lake — was the culmination of a year's worth of fundraising efforts by individuals and teams who had pledged to raise money for the Alzheimer's Association. This year, participants raised more than $45,000.
Participants raise money by holding bake sales, garage sales and gathering support from neighbors and the community, said Ashley Burden, the association's communications and public policy director.
Burdens said local businesses, including D&H Drugstore, CenturyLink, Inside Columbia, Kilgore's Medical Pharmacy and others, came out to support the association financially or offered educational or promotional services.
The event was hosted by the Alzheimer’s Association's mid-Missouri chapter, and was also a platform to learn more about the association's services. The mid-Missouri chapter serves central and northeast Missouri.
Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., Burden said, citing a 2011 report from the association.
According to the report, there are an estimated 5.4 million Americans living with the disease, 110,000 of which are in Missouri.
"Younger people are being diagnosed with Alzheimer's more and more," walk chairwoman Jean Hough said. "It's not just an old people's disease anymore."
Hough took the position this February; Sunday's walk was her first for the Alzheimer's Association.
"There's really not much funding allocated to this disease either," Hough added.
The money raised Sunday will support the association's efforts on a national and local level. In Columbia, the Alzheimer's Association supports programs like a 24/7-phone helpline that connects people coping with the disease to care consultants, support groups and physicians. The mid-Missouri chapter offers programs that assist with future planning, advice and safety programs for area patients and their families.
A highlight of the event for Hough was the emcee, Joe Bechtold, of the Travel Channel's show "Truck Stop Missouri." Bechtold has a history of Alzheimer's disease in his family; in May, he helped raise money for the association by hosting a Cow-Pattie Bingo event that was taped for the show, filmed at his Midway Travel Plaza.
Hough said the number of people at the event, as well as their enthusiasm, was impressive.
"So many people turned out for the walk," she said. "It's a reminder that Alzheimer's touches a lot of people."