Alzheimer's: a family odyssey

  • Article by: KATY READ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 11, 2011 - 11:22 AM

Katy Read thought she knew why her mother had Alzheimer's. But then her uncle was diagnosed, too ...

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Author Katy Read with her mother and brother. Provided photo

I'm no doctor, but when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in her late 60s, I figured I knew what had caused it.

After all, I had read all the usual tips from experts, in magazines and on websites, for keeping your brain healthy. Exercise. Nutritious foods. Social interaction and intellectually challenging activities. It makes sense that these habits would help cognitive function. After all, they're demonstrably good for either your body or your outlook, and doesn't your brain represent a little of both?

My mother had not followed all of those rules. Oh, her diet was reasonably healthy. And her mind was pretty active; she loved to read, and until her retirement had worked as an author and advertising writer. But she wasn't big on exercise. She'd react to an invitation for a neighborhood stroll as if being handed a signup sheet for a triathalon. And she was a homebody, limiting her social activities to family get-togethers and an occasional meal with a close friend.

So there you go! Taking it easy and liking time alone -- isn't that practically throwing out a welcome mat for Alzheimer's?

In retrospect, I wonder if my focus on those healthy habits might have been a sign I was going through one of those famous stages of grief, perhaps denial or bargaining. I kept hoping something could be done to delay or reverse my mother's illness, even though I knew doctors said there is, as yet, no real cure.

Also haunting me was Alzheimer's potential genetic component. Researchers have linked late-onset Alzheimer's to genes, particularly one called APOE e4. Not everybody who has APOE e4 gets Alzheimer's and not everybody who gets Alzheimer's has APOE e4 -- it's a risk factor, not a sentence. Still, when someone from whom you received half of your own genes develops a terrible disease, you want to take any available measures to avoid the same fate.

Maybe you even start even putting undue faith in those measures.

My mother died in 2008. At her memorial service, friends and relatives got up to share memories that emphasized her artistic talent, her easygoing nature, her sense of humor. I listened, sadness mingling with a bittersweet sense of closure. When a loved one has spent nearly a decade steadily turning into a different person, it's good to be reminded of what she used to be like.

My uncle stood to tell a story involving a toy-shopping expedition with my mother when they were kids. His anecdote was amusing and well-delivered. But at dinner afterward, I noticed that my normally gregarious uncle seemed uncharacteristically withdrawn.

Three months later, my uncle was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

It was like hearing that a lifelong nonsmoker had wound up with lung cancer. My uncle seemed to have done everything right. Exercise? He'd run around a local track every morning for years. Nutrition? He was married to a fabulous cook who prepared well-balanced meals. Social activity? He and my aunt entertained frequently, he sang in a local choir, met a group of friends weekly for coffee. Intellectual stimulation? He was a retired literature professor who loved to discuss books, movies, politics, relationships -- all at length and in great analytic detail.

At some level, I had known all along that good habits offered no guarantees. A glance at famous Alzheimer's sufferers shows that anybody is vulnerable: artists, public officials, Olympic athletes. Iris Murdoch, E. B. White, Ronald Reagan ... if writing classic novels or running a country aren't enough to keep the mind active, what is?

My uncle died this spring. At his memorial service, I listened again as loved ones described a person who had been brilliant, enthusiastic, engaging. Their voices carried a hint of bewilderment that I felt I understood.

Nowadays, I mostly try to follow the expert advice. My pleasure in exercise for its own sake barely exceeds my mother's (those darn genes again!), but I enjoy walking and biking. I hang out with friends, like learning new things. I like most nutritious foods, though am not immune to the allure of a big greasy hamburger. I'm "good," in other words, most of the time.

But every now and then I'll forget an appointment, or get lost in thought and miss a freeway exit, and feel a small stab of fear.

Katy Read • 612-673-4583

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