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Syanne Centeno’s grandfather, Manuel Centeno Sr., is her hero.

A veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, Manuel Centeno took a young Syanne on adventures in rescuing stray animals near their home in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Manuel Centeno always had a soft spot for animals and was known around town as the man to go to if you spotted a stray in need of a home or aid.

His influence was felt by his granddaughter, who is currently studying veterinary medicine at the College of Southern Maryland

“If I didn’t have him, maybe I wouldn’t be the way I am,” said Centeno, who works at a local pet store and is a certified veterinary assistant.

About three years ago, the family saw Manuel’s health declining. The 78-year-old was forgetting to eat, and after a fall that resulted in fracturing his neck, his health started going downhill.

He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, something that frightened Syanne Centeno a bit.

“I did a little bit of research,” she said. “He is my idol, I didn’t want to think about him getting worse and he’s going to get worse.

“I don’t know what it’s like,” to suffer from the disease, Centeno said. “But I know how much it hurts the family.”

One in two people 85 and older and one in eight 65 or older will develop Alzheimer’s, according to research conducted by the Alzheimer’s Association. That’s 5.4 Americans living with the disease 5.3 million who are 65 and older and 200,000 younger than 65. In Maryland, there are 86,000 people with Alzheimer’s, 130,000 in Virginia and 9,100 in Washington, D.C.

By 2050, 16 million will have the diease, according to the research reports.

“It is an epedmic, it is a health crisis in our country,” said Susan Kudla Finn, president and CEO of the Alzheimer's Association National Capital Area chapter. “It is really a silver tsunami.”

It is the nation’s sixth leading cause of death, and the only one in the top 10 causes that has no way to prevent, cure or slow down its progression.

More than 15 million Americans provide unpaid care valued at $210 billion for persons with Alzheimer's and other dementias, according to the research.

The association provides education and support not only to people suffering from Alzheimer’s but to caregivers as well, Finn said. Services include a 24/7 toll-free help line, support groups, care consultations, services for those in the early stages of the disease, safety programs and education programs for patients, families, caregivers and the public.

Since 1989, the association has been holding walks to fund research and education.

The Walk to End Alzheimer’s will be Sept. 15 at Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf and at Asbury-Solomons Island in Solomons.

So far, both the Waldorf and Solomons walks have about 700 participants each registered, but organizers anticpate more signing up on the morning of the event.

Syanne Centeno, her boyfriend, Shane Patterson and parents, Manuel Centeno Jr. and Elba Cruz of Hughesville will be participating in the Waldorf walk.

“If I could, I would visit him, but finances and time hasn't allowed that. So I am doing this walk for him and all the others suffering,” Centeno said.

“This is for the families and friends who suffer watching their loved ones suffer. This is to end and prevent Alzheimer’s so no one has to face the pain of watching their loved ones slowly slip away.”

So far, Manuel recognizes his granddaughter’s voice on the phone.

“He remembered me, sometimes he gets names mixed up, but he always seems to know it’s my voice on the phone,” Centeno said. “He’s my favorite person.”

staylor@somdnews.com