Bruce is the Einstein of environmental engineering. He does research on cleaning up water pollution and finding ways to reverse global warming. He works with photosynthetic bacteria that can produce hydrocarbons that may someday replace fossil fuels. He’s developing a microbial fuel cell that produces electrical power or hydrogen gas that may be used to drive your car. He’s also studying bacteria in the human gut and delving into the deeper causes of obesity. We need Bruce’s brain. Not just me, but all of us.
The speaker, Pierre Tariot, MD, started his talk with risk factors having to do with age. If you’re sixty, your odds are 1 percent. Bruce is 63, so not too far past that benchmark. “By the time you’re 85,” Dr. Tariot said, “the odds shoot up to 50 percent.”
Bruce sat back, modestly reassured. That didn’t last long.
Dr. Tariot talked about the brain imaging studies of a colleague, Dr. Eric M. Reiman. While age is a big factor, Dr. Reiman’s brain imaging studies show “the footprints of Alzheimer’s creep in 20 to 30 years before the symptoms become serious enough to interfere with daily life.”
Not good. Bruce could have Alzheimer’s and not even know it.
How much does your risk go up if your parents have Alzheimer’s? The disease is not directly “inheritable.” What we do inherit are genes: one from our mother and one from our father.
A quarter of us carry the gene that puts us at risk. If you inherit two copies of this gene (the ApoE-E4 gene), you have a 90 percent risk of getting late-onset Alzheimer’s. Symptoms of late-onset Alzheimer’s typically appear after age 65. For Bruce, that’s two years from now.
Even if you have dodged the bullet and not inherited two copies of the gene, you are two to four times more likely to get Alzheimer’s if your mother, father, or sibling has the disease.
Here’s the silver lining. While there are people who develop the disease early, most folks won’t become symptomatic till their seventh or eighth decade.
What does this mean for us as a couple? I’m afraid that I see another stint of caregiving coming my way. (Coming next month: A Simple Swab Test Predicts Alzheimer’s)
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