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Preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease is a bold assertion, but NorthShore’s Demetrius “Jim” Maraganore, MD, stands by the promise that the NorthShore Center for Brain Health is doing just that.
“When we launched the Center a few years ago, some experts were raising their eyebrows at the notion of engaging patients in prevention strategies,” explained Dr. Maraganore, the Ruth Cain Ruggles Chair of Neurology and Medical Director of NorthShore Neurological Institute. “But there’s rapidly growing acceptance of evidence-based approaches to modify risk factors, slow brain aging and protect against brain degeneration.”
More than 400 patients are now coming to the Center for Brain Health—a testament to the community’s desire to learn how to protect and improve their own brain health. Part of NorthShore’s Center for Personalized Medicine, it is one of the first centers in the country to focus on preventing Alzheimer’s disease and other aging-related brain disorders.
Women at Higher Risk
Watching both of her elderly parents struggle with dementia and knowing that women are twice as likely as men to develop Alzheimer’s symptoms motivated Stephanie Vlahakis to see Dr. Maraganore. A certified Integrated Health Coach, the 57-year-old Vlahakis of Winnetka has always been focused on a healthy lifestyle, yet she wanted to make sure she was doing everything she could to preserve cognitive function.
“Hearing Dr. Maraganore make the case that there are things we can do to maximize our brain health was transformative for me,” recalled Vlahakis. She has taken full advantage of the Center’s multidisciplinary team by working with a registered dietitian to tweak her diet, and consulting with sleep experts to ensure she is getting enough quality rest—another proven factor in dementia prevention.
Intensified Exercise Another major change in Vlahakis’ life has been incorporating more cardiovascular exercise into her routine. Now she increases her heart rate by power walking almost every day. “I worked out with a trainer for strength training before, but I didn’t understand that it’s vigorous cardio that benefits the brain,” she added.
Supplements designed to boost brain health, meditation to keep stress at bay, close social connections and activities like book groups also are part of her strategy to maximize her cognitive power.
“I can’t say enough good things about the whole experience at the Center,” said Vlahakis, who will continue with annual visits. “I have peace of mind starting this relationship with Dr. Maraganore and the Center. I feel more prepared. Being proactive is everything.”
Role of DNAWhile Vlahakis chose not to have a genetic test to learn whether she carries a variation of the APOE gene that increases risk for Alzheimer’s, Christiane Shaughnessy from Chicago’s South Loop was grateful the Center for Brain Health offered DNA testing.
An active volunteer and fundraiser for the Alzheimer’s Association, the 44-year-old Shaughnessy lost her father to the disease. “I owe it to my father to do anything in my power to combat this,” she said. When Shaughnessy learned she is in the moderate risk category inheriting one copy of the APOE variant, it became the motivation she needed to tackle a lifelong struggle with her weight.
Lifestyle Changes are Critical “Dr. Maraganore encouraged me with the fact that my diet is something I can control. I want to get to a healthy body mass index and I’m truly working on that, getting closer to the Mediterranean diet and working with weight loss professionals. It’s not the vanity aspect anymore, it’s so much more than that.”
Adding swimming and cycling to her routine, Shaughnessy has a goal of losing enough weight this year to compete in a sprint triathlon next year. “I’m trying to walk more now, am religiously taking the supplements Dr. Maraganore recommended and am so grateful to have all these resources at my disposal,” she added.
While Shaughnessy and her husband are avid motorcyclists—as was her father—the couple now rides bicycles, and incorporates other healthy activities into their lives. “I’m extraordinarily blessed. I love the guy I come home to, I have a fulfilling and fun job, it’s time to get the weight in check and focus on my health,” she said.
“My father has Alzheimer’s disease, as did my grandmother and great grandmother. I’ve seen it touch people I love dearly and it motivates me to embrace this challenge,” emphasized Dr. Maraganore, who holds an academic appointment at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. I feel obligated personally and professionally to do everything I can to help people prevent this disease.”