Maybe it’s just that things are very, very busy. Maybe it’s because the Walk to End Alzheimer’s and the TRIAD conference are both this week. Maybe it’s because of the meetings I’ve been attending for the Lakes Area Memory Awareness Advocates (LAMAA) and with the Early Stages Support Group. Maybe it’s because of the son I’ve been talking to who is more and more uncomfortable that his mom is home alone all day while he goes to work. Maybe it’s because of the husband who is learning to cook because his wife just can’t complete all the tasks anymore. Heck, maybe it’s just because my birthday is around the corner! Whatever it is, I know there are many of us out there that wonder the same as I do — what might my fate be with this incredibly horrible and more and more common disease?
I’ve learned many of the basic facts. Number one, for yourself and your family members, you should know and recognize the 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s Disease: Memory loss, difficulty performing familiar tasks, problems with language, disorientation to time and place, poor or decreased judgment, problems with abstract thinking, misplacing things, changes in mood or behavior, changes in personality and loss of initiative. Number two, although the onset of Alzheimer’s cannot yet be stopped or reversed, early diagnosis allows those affected by the disease and their families many benefits.
A huge question rests in all of our minds. The keynote speaker at a recent Alzheimer’s Association conference had just wrapped up his presentation and asked for questions when a caregiver rushed to the microphone, “Doctor, am I going to get Alzheimer’s disease too?” she asked worriedly.
For caregivers and family members, this question looms large. Forget a familiar name or appointment, make a mistake in a bank account or burn something on the stove and you ask yourself, “Is this it? Has my Alzheimer’s started?”
Don’t panic. While some types of Alzheimer’s may be more likely to be inherited than others, dementia expert David Troxel thinks our stress-filled, multi-tasking culture almost encourages forgetfulness: “We depend upon our smart phones to remind us of appointments, our cellphones are automatically programmed to dial a number and our GPS systems take us where we want to go without much thinking.”
While many people are becoming a bit more forgetful because they aren’t exercising their brains, Troxel affirms that periodic memory lapses aren’t usually a sign of early Alzheimer’s, particularly in younger persons.
So, are you more likely to get Alzheimer’s if one of your parents has the disease? Here is a summary of the current thinking about the inheritability of Alzheimer’s.
Early-onset Alzheimer’s may be more inheritable
Alzheimer’s disease does run in some families, particularly in early onset cases in which someone gets the disease well before the age of 65. Fortunately, these devastating cases represent less than 5 percent of all diagnoses. If you have a parent or sibling in this situation, you may want to get him or her evaluated at a university research center. You may also want to undergo genetic testing yourself to better understand your family situation.
■ Later-onset Alzheimer’s is less inheritable
If you have a relative whose Alzheimer’s disease begins well after the age of 65, you probably only have a slight increase in risk, if any. This is good news for most family members, since late-onset dementia is by far the most common form of the disease. Families will often express concern that many of their elderly relatives experienced Alzheimer’s disease. They worry that it must run in the family since “four of my five uncles had dementia.” Troxel offers some reassuring words of advice, “Remember, almost half of all elders will develop dementia. This family’s experience might just reflect the average variations in percentages that impact us all.”
■ Assessing your risk
If you still want to assess your risk, you can talk with your physician about genetic testing. The most common test looks at a gene called APOE (apolipoprotein E). You receive one gene from your mother and one from your father. The test reveals whether you have an APOE 2, 3 or 4 from your mother and your father. A 2/2 combination seems to actually protect the brain; an APOE 4/4 greatly increases your risk.
Most medical professionals discourage blanket genetic testing, at least in its current form. An APOE test demonstrates risk but is not definitive. It will also not tell you when you will get Alzheimer’s — at 70, 80 or 95. This makes the information hard to use on a practical basis.
While the evidence is not definitive, getting plenty of exercise, not smoking, controlling weight, eating a heart-friendly diet and staying socially and intellectually active may help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, or may even prevent it. If you have experienced Alzheimer’s disease in your family, take these positive wellness steps. They cannot hurt you but may help quite a bit!
If you’d like more information on Alzheimer’s and Dementia, there are many opportunities in our community. The Walk to End Alzheimer’s is being held on Saturday, Sept. 22 at 10 a.m. at Northland Arboretum. Please join a team, walk and donate to this great cause to help our children live in a world without Alzheimers. The LAMAA group meets the second Wednesday of every month at the Lakes Area Senior Activity Center, with the next meeting at 8 a.m. Oct. 10. All are welcome. Help us with our goal of awareness — getting information about this disease out to our community. The TRIAD conference begins today, Sept. 18, at The Lodge and on Sept. 19 there is a presentation specifically on memory care issues.
Also, please research websites such as www.alz.org, www.helpforalzheimersfamilies.com and www.caregiverstress.com. If you have any questions about any of these events, you may also contact me at 824-0077.
Wouldn’t a world without Alzheimer’s be wonderful?
DEB CRANNY is the executive director at Home Instead Senior Care in Brainerd.