November 27th, 2009
11:42 AM ET

Alzheimer’s changes family ties

By Rebecca Leibowitz
CNN Medical Intern

It all started one afternoon. “Grandma,” I asked, “how did Karen like my hand-me-downs?” “What?” she responded, “I didn’t know what those clothes were doing in my trunk. I gave them to charity.” We all knew immediately that something was wrong. And there was more to come. Once a skilled, careful driver, my grandmother terrified her passengers when she blew through a stop sign as if it didn’t exist. I would catch her staring at me in confusion, often calling me by the name of my cousin or aunt. My grandmother, like her own grandmother, two brothers and a first cousin, has become one of the estimated 5.3 million people in the United States living with Alzheimer’s disease – the most common cause of dementia.

Our family has learned what many other families know well: Alzheimer’s disease is devastating. We’ve seen our loved ones change into someone entirely different. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, a person develops the disease every 70 seconds in the U.S., and the amount of people living with Alzheimer’s is expected to double every 20 years. The illness’ economic costs are nearly as distressing as its emotional toll. Each year, an estimated $148 billion is spent on Alzheimer’s, including direct costs of Medicare and Medicaid and indirect costs to businesses. This figure, like the burden of Alzheimer’s disease in the U.S., is expected to only get worse.

Alzheimer’s has no cure and its damage can begin decades before symptoms are apparent. The exact cause is still unknown, but tangles and plaques in the brain are thought to lead to symptoms like memory loss, poor judgment, changes in mood or behavior. Without a cure in sight for this disease, what can people like my mom, who is approaching the age when the disease could already be developing, do to prevent or slow the onset of this debilitating illness?

Researchers are convinced that mental activity and socialization can help. Reading, playing board games, playing musical instruments and dancing have all been shown to decrease the risk of contracting any form of dementia. Engage your brain, build up your social networks and you’ll put off getting the disease or possibly avoid getting it altogether.

Other studies have found a link between unhealthy living and increased Alzheimer’s risk. A study earlier this month in the Archives of General Psychiatry concluded that for people with a family history of the disease, high blood pressure in middle age is a significant risk factor for Alzheimer’s in old age. So, what can you do if Alzheimer’s is prevalent in your family? Don’t smoke, eat a well-balanced, heart-healthy diet, stay stress-free and exercise regularly. Not only will these measures decrease your risk for Alzheimer’s, they will improve your overall quality and length of life.

Unfortunately, this information wasn’t around when my grandmother was growing up. But for my mom, her siblings and myself, (as well as the millions of other Americans with a strong family history of the illness), there is hope. Not only can we decrease our Alzheimer’s risk by maintaining a healthy and active brain and body, but researchers are constantly discovering new things about prevention and treatment of the disease. Perhaps one day we will even find a cure.

Do you have a history of Alzheimer’s disease in your family? Are you taking any measures to try to keep from contracting the disease?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.