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We know some diseases can run in families—from certain cancers or heart disease to neurological conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. So when Dan Carlson’s mom began experiencing memory problems seven years ago, he was understandably concerned about the future of his own brain health—especially now that she lives in an Alzheimer’s care facility. Studies have shown that having a first-degree relative like a parent with Alzheimer’s disease can significantly increase one’s risk for developing similar cognitive disorders.
One of Carlson’s physicians had a suggestion: make an appointment at NorthShore’s Center for Brain Health, which is among the first centers in the country focused on preventing Alzheimer’s and other aging-related brain disorders. Carlson, a 69-year-old retired computer programmer from Lake Bluff, jumped at the opportunity to learn about what he could do to reduce his risk.
Assessing the Genetic Link After meeting with the team at the Center for Brain Health, Carlson opted to undergo genetic testing to see if he carried a variation of the apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene that increases the risk for Alzheimer’s. While not all patients choose to have DNA testing, it is one service the Center offers in developing a personalized treatment plan to help clients optimize their brain health.
“Genetics isn’t destiny. What’s important is how you use the information in context with other factors,” explained Peter Hulick, MD, Medical Director at NorthShore’s Mark R. Neaman Center for Personalized Medicine. “Making informed decisions with a team of healthcare professionals and a structured program of lifestyle changes really helps patients recognize the benefits of this genetic test.”
“For me, knowledge is power and I thought it would be better to know and be able to take action armed with that knowledge,” recalled Carlson, who learned that he carries two copies of the genetic variant APOE e4. While at a genetically higher risk, research suggests that the impact of APOE e4 on developing Alzheimer’s also depends on health and lifestyle factors.
Risk-Lessening Strategies Fortunately, Carlson was already well on his way to better health by working to lose weight and amping up his fitness level before he met with the Center for Brain Health team. His genetic test results provided compelling motivation to take even more forceful control of his diet and lifestyle.
By overhauling his nutrition and significantly increasing his physical activity, Carlson has lost more than 80 pounds, and his blood sugar and cholesterol levels are under control, too. “I intend to take all the steps I can to have the best possible outcome,” said Carlson. “This isn’t a sentence, it’s a propensity.”
The Center for Brain Health team helped Carlson review his diet, including testing his antioxidant and omega 3 levels and looking for nutrient deficiencies. Beyond sharing strategies for increasing exercise, they considered other important issues like sleep and stress reduction. Studies show that getting the proper amount of sleep may reduce beta-amyloid plaque levels in the brain and that vigorous exercise can prevent age-related brain atrophy, leading to brain growth in older adults.
“We know there are many important factors in keeping the brain as healthy as possible including exercise, diet and sleep,” noted Neurologist Chad Yucus, MD, who specializes in memory disorders including Alzheimer’s and Lewy Body Dementia. “At the Center, we dive into each area in detail with our patients to see how we can help them optimize their personal habits to minimize risk and improve brain health,” added Dr. Yucus, who along with Dr. Hulick holds an academic appointment at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.
Brain Boost Dan Carlson is all in. His diet no longer resembles the “standard American” fare he grew up on. He runs five miles, three times a week. Carlson cycles on the days he doesn’t run and swims most days, tracking all of his increased activity. “It feels good, and if I don’t get out for some reason now I really miss it,” said Carlson, who also sails regularly with friends in Florida during the winter months, and at home on Lake Michigan over the summer.
“I have once-a-year follow up appointments at the Center and it’s a good refresh with nutritional testing and recommendations for different supplements,” noted Carlson, who enjoys staying on top of the latest research and trends. Carlson also has avoided heart disease, a condition that has affected the other males in his family. “I feel fortunate that I got directed to the Center and had help guiding my nutrition and exercise.”
The Center for Brain Health team continues to pursue research collaborations and education efforts as they work toward broader goals of preventing Alzheimer’s, one personalized approach at a time.
“It’s important to get people talking about brain health and adopting protective factors as early as possible since everyone has a lifetime risk,” added Dr. Yucus.