Great Grams inspires teen to hunt for Alzheimer's cure

Story highlights

  • Alzheimer's affects 5.2 million Americans and millions more who are caregivers
  • Symptoms include memory loss, difficulty in performing everyday tasks
  • Max Wallack, 17, co-wrote a children's book and founded nonprofit group
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(CNN)When Max Wallack was 6, his great-grandmother Gertrude Finkelstein -- Great Grams as he called her -- was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. His parents were open with him, explaining in easy-to-understand terms that the illness would have a significant impact on her memory.

Wallack and his great-grandmother had always been close, but the debilitating disease took its toll on their relationship. She had cared for him when he was young; now he was one of her primary caregivers.
Wallack spent a large part his childhood watching over Great Grams, who was in and out of nursing homes until she moved in with his family. Despite his age, Wallack often held the responsibility of taking care of his great-grandmother alone when his parents could not.
    He called it "bubby-sitting."
    Alzheimer's affects 5.2 million Americans and millions more who are caregivers devoting their lives to helping affected loved ones. Caring for someone with Alzheimer's is no simple task. Symptoms include memory loss, difficulty in performing everyday tasks and not recognizing close family members.
    "There were some hard times," says Wallack, now 17. He recalls a vacation to Hawaii when Great Grams grew fearful of the family, even though they were only looking out for her.
    Great Grams passed away when Wallack was 10. Her last few years inspired him to devote his life to studying Alzheimer's and dementia.
    Wallack is a junior studying neuroscience at Boston University. After graduation, he wants to attend medical school and continue pursuing Alzheimer's research.
    His resume already showcases his passion: He performs research at the Laboratory of Molecular Psychiatry in Aging at Boston University's Alzheimer's Disease Center. He also founded the nonprofit organization Puzzles to Remember, which distributes puzzles to patients in nursing homes with Alzheimer's and dementia.
    Wallack did not achieve all this without persistence -- or intelligence. He took university courses while still in high school and began lab work when he was 15.
    Wallack's ultimate goal? To find a cure or treatment for Alzheimer's. But attacking the illness from a medical standpoint alon