Ralph Klein, who died Friday at age 70, suffered from two debilitating health conditions, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and frontemporal dementia.
He was formally diagnosed with FTD, an aggressive form of dementia, less than two years ago, on April 1, 2011. FTD affects the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, which control, among other things, the ability to speak.
That was a particularly cruel fate for Mr. Klein, a jovial politician who enjoyed verbal sparring.
He moved into a long-term care facility less than six months after his diagnosis with frontotemporal dementia, a testament to how devastating FTD can be.
Typically, people live 7-10 years after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia. But FTD strikes people younger – Mr. Klein was only in his 60s – and sufferers degenerate much more quickly.
In addition to aphasia – the loss of the ability to understand and express speech – the most common symptoms of FTD are severe personality changes and severe lethargy, a consequence of shrinkage of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain.
Mr. Klein’s condition was complicated by COPD, a serious lung disease. People with COPD often suffer mini-strokes, which can exacerbate dementia.
COPD is the name given to a combination of emphysema and chronic bronchitis. In emphysema, the air sacs in the lungs are damaged, hampering breathing. Bronchitis is a inflammation of the airways, which also makes it hard to breathe.
Almost all COPD sufferers require supplemental oxygen. Seeing older people with portable oxygen tanks is increasingly common.
COPD is a condition suffered almost exclusively by smokers. Mr. Klein was a long-time smoker.
The cause of frontotemporal dementia is unknown. However, like all forms of early-onset dementia, there is a genetic element. It is not clear if others in Mr. Klein’s family have suffered from this relatively rare form of dementia.
Mr. Klein left office in 2006. He had a couple of years of good health – working as a consultant for a law firm - before he began to experience difficulty breathing in 2009. Emphysema – and later COPD – was diagnosed.
Over the next couple of years, Mr. Klein began to struggle with his speech and motor control. He stopped working and driving and had numerous stints in hospital before moving to a long-term care facility.
Typically, in the late stages of dementia, the body loses the ability to fight off infections. People with COPD are also at high risk of respiratory infections like pneumonia.
For the past week, Mr. Klein has been receiving palliative care, and died Friday surrounded by family and friends.
Colleen Klein, his spouse, made a point of thanking Mr. Klein’s long-time caregivers at the Calgary care facility where he spent the last years of his life.