Even in the end, Bruce Vincent was generous.
Vincent, a popular Westminster grocery store owner whose very public struggle with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease sparked an outpouring from strangers across the country, died Sunday. The 51-year-old had donated his brain to researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Vincent spent his final years enrolled in a Mass. General study of an especially cruel, inherited form of Alzheimer’s disease that strikes at an early age. Vincent’s mother, grandfather, and great-grandfather all died of dementia in their 50s.
The early-onset form is rare, accounting for only about 4 percent of the estimated 5 million Americans with the disease. Still, researchers have been studying Vincent and other families with this inherited trait in the belief it may help them understand, and ultimately tame, a disease that has defied treatments.
While Vincent’s mother shrouded her illness, he and his wife, Cindy, and their children took a very different route, choosing to go public as Bruce’s symptoms started to become visible in 2010. They allowed the Globe to chronicle their journey in a yearlong series of stories.
The Vincent family ‘shined a spotlight on this disease.’
“They weren’t a family that shut the doors and went into mourning for years,” said James Wessler, president of the Alzheimer’s Association of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. “They were engaged, they shined a spotlight on this disease and encouraged everyone possible to try and find a cure.”
Cindy Vincent said Sunday that the family’s mission to raise awareness of the disease, and money for research, will continue.
“It will be just as strong as it’s always been,” she said. “It’s not over, till it’s over.”
Dr. Reisa Sperling, Bruce Vincent’s physician and director of the Alzheimer’s research and treatment center at Mass. General and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said Vincent’s donation will help scientists better understand the illness.
“One of the important aspects in the field is to correlate what we can see during life with [brain] scans with what we can see under the microscope [after death],” Sperling said.
In addition to studying families with early-onset Alzheimer’s, Sperling is about to launch a new trial in February that will test whether drugs can hold off the disease in older people who have no symptoms of Alzheimer’s, but who have an abnormal protein in their brains believed to be a hallmark of the illness.
The study will enroll 1,100 people, aged 65 to 85, from the United States, Canada, and Australia.
“I feel so badly that we did not have something to help Bruce,” Sperling said. “It’s a reminder that we are losing the time battle with this disease.”
Vincent, known for his quick wit, impish humor, and generous support of local fund-raisers, was a fixture in the Central Massachusetts town, where his Vincent’s Country Store became as much a community gathering spot as a store.
Vincent was always the first to donate to local sports teams. He handed out countless hot dogs and sodas from his store on Memorial Day, and eagerly volunteered for the dunk tank to raise money for local charities. His son, Brian Vincent, now runs the family store.
As word spread in recent days around town that Bruce Vincent was nearing the end, memories flowed from neighbors, friends, and former colleagues. Jennifer Shenk, a Vincent family friend, has been compiling the e-mails for the family.
“I have gotten over 60; some are one-liners and others are a full page,” she said.
“The most common sentiment is that people felt like he really knew them, whether they were a neighbor, customer, or friend,” Shenk said. “He made people feel like they had a connection.”
Bruce Vincent’s wake is Thursday at Sawyer-Miller-Masciarelli funeral home in Westminster from 4 to 8 p.m. His funeral is Friday at 11 a.m. at Bread of Life Church in Westminster.