My Hypothesis about Boston Study: Genes and High Stress Caused by Caregiving May Lead to Memory Loss
My mother and much of her family suffered from Alzheimer’s so I bet you are not surprised to find I’m really interested in the research about this disease. Thus, I read with interest the announcement of a study from Boston University’s School of Medicine that found that middle-age people whose parents have had Alzheimer’s and who genetically carry the Alzheimer’s gene may have a memory that is similar to a person 15-years-older in age. The study also found that this memory decline wasn’t detected in middle-age people whose parents had Alzheimer’s but who did not carry the gene.
The study, led by Dr. Sudha Seshadri, an associate professor of neurology, looked at data from 715 people who are participating in the Framingham Heart Study. Of those participants, 282 had at least one parent who had been diagnosed with some type of dementia. The average age of participants was 59 years old and all were healthy. However, study participants who had the Alzheimer’s gene recorded lower scores on verbal and visual memory tests when taking a battery of cognitive tests.
Carrying the gene does not mean that a person will develop Alzheimer’s. Additionally, the study does not indicate whether carrying the Alzheimer’s gene causes additional risk for those whose parents had dementia or Alzheimer's. Furthermore, the brain scans of study participants did not show any volumetric changes. Instead, Dr. Seshadri theorizes that the Alzheimer’s gene interacts with other genes in triggering Alzheimer’s. Dr. Seshadri also noted that between 20-25 percent of the population have the gene related to Alzheimer’s,
I realize this study provides interesting information on genetic issues related to Alzheimer’s, but I wonder if the participants’ declining memory also may be compounded by the aging process that is triggered by the stress involved in caregiving for a parent (or two) who have Alzheimer’s. I suggest this hypothesis because I noticed how much I physically aged during the five-year period when Mom mental capacity began a rapid and steep decline. I found I was very stressed and didn’t make time for regular exercise or a good diet. This time period included several years before she was diagnosed, but during which uncharacteristic memory lapses were evident, as well as the two years that Mom was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and lived in a nursing home. Although I am sure that helping loved ones deal with other diseases (such as cancer or diabetes) can be stressful, watching a loved one’s battle with Alzheimer’s can really tax the caregiver since you often “lose” the loved one mentally before they suffer a significant physical decline. Plus, often the caregiving for a loved one with Alzheimer’s spans a long period of time and can lead to long bouts with extraordinary stress. Therefore, I wish that researchers would see if there is a relationship between memory loss of study participants who have the Alzheimer’s gene and those who had a large role in caregiving for the parent(s) with Alzheimer’s.
With that said, I believe that focusing on multiple self-care priorities – such as exercise, healthy diet, stress reduction, regular sleep, strong and supportive relationships – each day can help the body not only deal effectively with stress, but also remain younger (and perhaps delay or stop the triggering genes to react which can lead to Alzheimer’s). By taking better care of ourselves both during the time when we are caregivers as well as after caregiving duties end, we have a chance of remaining remain more vital for a longer period of time in face of genetic interactions.