One of the biggest influences when I was a child was my great-grandmother. She had raised my father and was very close to him — and, therefore, was very close to me as well. She was my babysitter, my friend and the coolest grownup I knew. Even after my parents divorced and I didn’t see my dad as much, she remained a presence in my life.
I saw her less, but our bond was strong.
She was what we would call a “homesteader” today. My great-grandmother raised huge vegetable and flower gardens and chickens in a coop right next to her little house in a very small town. She made homemade jam, and told the best stories in the world. She told me my first fairy tales, all from the oral tradition, rich in detail and character.
I was a pre-teen when my father and stepmother explained to me that my great-grandmother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. They explained to me that she was having trouble remembering who people were. For some time after that, she still remembered me, but then, one time, she didn’t remember me when I first saw her for a visit. She called me by the name of her sister, and it took her a little bit to remember me.
Being a child, this scared me a little, but I remember feeling the most overwhelming sadness when the day came that I realized she was never again going to remember who I was. I wondered if she had also forgotten the stories she told me and the days we spent together in her garden when I was very young.
My father told me that my great-grandmother had been “escaping” from her nursing home and wandering around the town lost on a couple of occasions. I remember, in my kid-thinking, feeling so sorry for her and wondering if she was going to die soon.
I didn’t mourn so much when I found out she died because I had already mourned. I remember my family being somewhat confused that I wasn’t more distraught but it was like she was gone to me long before she actually died. Alzheimer’s had felt frightening to me, and I didn’t know what to do but to distance myself from something that seemed too scary to me.
Alzheimer’s is a disease characterized by plaques and tangles in the brain, which alter memory and behavior. Symptoms of Alzheimer’s include mental decline and confusion, making things up, delusion, forgetfulness, as well as aggression, agitation and even wandering around to the point of getting lost. It’s not easy on those who love people who develop Alzheimer’s.
Kristie Miner is a speech language pathologist who worked for 17 years as a support group facilitator for the Alzheimer’s Association and continues to offer support for patients with dementia here in Maine. Miner contends that it is important for the public to understand that those who are caring for people with Alzheimer’s are often under extreme amounts of stress and report a lot of loneliness and isolation as caregivers. “Friends no longer feel comfortable being around someone with Alzheimer’s,” Miner said.
While it is helpful and important to learn that my reaction of distancing myself from my great-grandmother was not unusual, I wanted to know more about how I could help prevent Alzheimer’s from being a part of my future — and if my family history is a predictor of Alzheimer’s for me.
My great-grandmother wasn’t my only relative to develop Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s is present in my mother’s side of the family as well, but as I began to understand the genetic component to this disease, I learned that having a family history with the disease does not guarantee I will have the genes which influence whether or not a person will develop Alzheimer’s.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are “risk genes” and “deterministic genes.” The risk genes increase the likelihood of Alzheimer’s but do not guarantee it. The deterministic genes, which do guarantee Alzheimer’s, account for less than one percent of Alzheimer’s cases.
Still, with a family history, I knew I needed to learn as much as I could about Alzheimer’s and establish health habits in my life that would help me care for my brain.
Due to her extensive work with the disease, Miner’s advice helped clear up a lot of confusion I had about Alzheimer’s. For example, I wasn’t sure about the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia. According to Miner, dementia is an “umbrella term” used to describe “a set of symptoms which can be caused by a number of diseases, Alzheimer’s being one of those diseases,” says Miner.
Of course, my most important question about Alzheimer’s is likely the one that most people would want to know: Can Alzheimer’s be prevented? I try to eat healthy and stay on top of my exercise. I read a lot, and I force myself to learn new and challenging things, even though, sometimes, the learning feels almost painful. But are these things actually helping me prevent Alzheimer’s?
The short answer is no, not exactly, but I am doing the right things to help fend off the disease. “Unfortunately, there is no magic formula to protect your brain from Alzheimer’s,” Miner said. “We have known for a long time that what is heart healthy is also brain healthy … Mental health also plays an important role. Being engaged socially, even if it is with just a couple of people with whom you are close, greatly impacts mood and brain function. Challenging yourself to think and learn and try something new is thought to build new connections in the brain, building what we call ‘cognitive reserve.’”
According to Miner, this “cognitive reserve” is so important because it builds a kind of “back up” in terms of neurological paths. “I think of ‘cognitive reserve’ as building side streets and detours in case a thought runs up against one of those brain plaques or tangles [of Alzheimer’s],” Miner said.
Sleep is also of critical importance to overall brain health. “Sleep is being more and more recognized as vital to our brain health and, in my clinical opinion, is not often discussed enough with primary care physicians,” Miner said.
So, while there is no guarantee I won’t develop Alzheimer’s later in my life, there is clearly much I can do now to help support my cognitive function and reduce my risks of cognitive decline. The Alzheimer’s Association provides a list of 10 things we can do to “love our brains.” This list consists of exercising, learning new things, quitting smoking, taking care of our hearts, protecting our brains from injury, eating a healthy diet, specifically the Mediterranean diet, getting good sleep, managing stress and depression, making friends, and challenging ourselves.
The more we learn about Alzheimer’s the better prepared we can be to help stave off its symptoms. While my powerful experiences with Alzheimer’s in my family will forever impact me and my concerns for my own brain function, I feel hopeful that there are things I can do to fight against the disease, even if I do have some genetic risk.