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Power of Prevention: Reducing the Risk of Alzheimer's Disease

Thursday, September 22, 2016 10:44 AM

You can lower your risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Just ask Demetrius “Jim” Maraganore, MD, and his team at the NorthShore Center for Brain Health, who help patients significantly reduce their chances of getting the dreaded degenerative brain disease.

The risk remains highest for women: One in five will develop Alzheimer’s. For men, the odds are one in 10. But regardless of gender, if you have a parent or sibling with the disease, your risk is statistically doubled.

“Anyone who has been touched by Alzheimer’s knows what a devastating and cruel disease this is,” said Dr. Maraganore, the Ruth Cain Ruggles Chair of Neurology and Medical Director of NorthShore Neurological Institute. “But we now know there are at least 23 different factors—most of them modifiable—that affect your risk.”

As part of NorthShore’s Center for Personalized Medicine, Dr. Maraganore and the Center’s clinical team help patients first understand the risk factors and then learn how changing behaviors can indeed lower their risk and put them on a path toward improved brain health to stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Brain Health patient story


Jean Buchband of Glenview is not wasting any time. The 48­-year old mother of three teenagers has a family history of Alzheimer’s. She currently helps her mother who struggles with mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor to Alzheimer’s.

“I remember when I was a teenager seeing my grandmother in Taiwan struggle with dementia,” said Buchband. “And now, while my mother is still living independently, I can see the signs. Some days are worse than others.”

When she learned of the NorthShore Center for Brain Health, Buchband moved swiftly. She scheduled an appointment for a personal evaluation and a genetic test to determine her own risk, which fortunately revealed a positive protective gene from her father.

Along with the reassuring genetic risk assessment, Buchband also was relieved to learn how basic lifestyle tweaks could further lessen her risk.

“I thought I had a pretty healthy diet before,” she said, “but I’ve changed my eating habits and am now helping my family eat healthier, too. I also thought I was exercising pretty well, but merely walking several times a week isn’t quite enough. I’ve stepped up the intensity.”

“Vigorous exercise and a strict adherence to a Mediterranean diet can cut your risk for Alzheimer’s disease by up to 60 percent,” explained Dr. Maraganore, who holds an academic appointment at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. “We have an overabundance of observational data showing these behavior changes make a real difference. We also have randomized clinical trials in Europe that demonstrate the brain health benefits of these interventions.”

Buchband values Dr. Maraganore’s proactive approach and feels empowered by the extensive evaluation and specific recommendations from her Center for Brain Health consultation.

“Up until now, I thought Alzheimer’s or dementia was something that was just going to happen,” said Buchband. “I love how passionate Dr. Maraganore is. It’s fantastic that he’s focusing on the beginning of this disease and prevention. This approach is revolutionary!”


Dr. Maraganore is exceedingly passionate and committed to educating the community about the power of prevention. “Finally, we’re taking our heads out of the sand,” he said. “The medical community has been so wrapped up in the idea of a cure, which is not realistic now. By the time patients get Alzheimer’s, their brains are shrunken and overwhelmed by amyloid plaque buildup and tangled neurons. Just as quitting smoking saves more lives than any drug to treat lung cancer, we know the power of prevention far exceeds the power of treatment when it comes to Alzheimer’s.”

Another novel aspect of the Center for Brain Health is its use of NorthShore’s award­winning Electronic Medical Record (EMR) system. The brain health team can gather up to 1,000 pieces of discrete information per office visit, all stored immediately in the patient’s individual record. This data is then de­identified and used to drive new research aimed at improving prevention of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Smartphones, apps and wearable Bluetooth devices that track fitness activities, diet and sleep also have the potential to help patients stay connected to their plans and specialists. “Integrating digital health devices with the EMR is another way of maximizing brain health outcomes,” explained Dr. Maraganore.


As she strives to proactively stay healthy, Buchband also is working to create “Ginkgo Village,” a community to improve the lives of people living with dementia—along with serving as a vocal proponent for NorthShore’s Center for Brain Health. She often recommends the innovative program to friends who are concerned about their risk. “I’m hopeful that I have some control over my future health,” she said.

“Jean is inspiring,” noted Dr. Maraganore. “She’s already very fit but knows that because she’s a woman and her mother is affected, she’s at increased risk. Jean wants to leverage every possible advantage by modeling great behaviors and preventive health, which is really the best gift we can give our children.”

Jean's story originally appeared in NorthShore's Connections publication.