Today, I was able to fulfill a goal of mine since moving to Arizona. It was a personal goal and one I was most passionate about…and thanks to a good friend of mine who has connections into Arizona’s medical community, I was able to meet and visit with Dr. Thomas Beach. Dr. Beach (or just Tom, as he directed me), is an MD, Head and Senior Scientist at the Civin Laboratory for Neuropathology, and Director of the Brain and Body Donation Program, (which are both part of the Banner Sun Health Research Institute here in AZ), specializing in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s research. In other words, he is a brilliant researcher and doctor making strides at battling the Alzheimer’s epidemic.
We toured his ‘brain bank” as he explained the various findings they continue to uncover from the brain tissue they acquire. One fact that struck me: his brain bank will freeze the brain tissue on someone who has expired within 3 HOURS upon their death, if they are a brain donor. They always have over 1,000 at any one time in which to study. And they are the ONLY research institution in the WORLD that is able to do this, primarily because Dr. Beach feels the longer the tissue is allowed to break-down, the less time they have to determine how Alzheimer’s compromised it. Amazing.
I had a few specific questions for him, as understanding and communicating about Alzheimer’s disease has become my mission. One question for him was: How close are we to finding a cure? His answer was bleak: “Not very!” The sad part about that is: 20% of people over 80 years of age will develop some form of dementia and there’s nothing we can do about it. At least, not yet. But he and his team continue to test and focus on answers.
Another question I had was more about me than anything: Is there anything (any drug) a person of high risk (like someone having several blood-relatives who are or have suffered from Alzheimer’s…like I have) can take to block the disease or keep it at bay? His answer: “No, unfortunately, there isn’t.”
‘However’, he continued, ‘that isn’t to say there aren’t things one can do to help the brain handle the disease better’. It didn’t sound like much of an alternative, but I listened. He spoke first about DNA testing…because he knew I wanted to know the pros and cons of that. There are reliable tests that can determine if someone has the E4 gene (the Alzheimer’s one), of which there are two. Those tests would not include the ones you can buy online through Amazon (like “23 & Me”, etc). A credible DNA test is administered as a blood test and sent to a specific lab that specializes in testing for Alzheimer’s disease. The advantage of knowing if you have the E4 gene is rather obvious: you can prepare family & friends (and maybe yourself) for what is coming. The disadvantage is that it is haunting for some. Like waiting for a title wave or an earthquake to hit. The knowledge can very easily bring on undue stress and depression. BUT…most importantly…one may have the E4 gene (from one parent), but may have other genes from the other parent that could block the disease from striking. If a person took the test and it was positive, they would have stressed and worried for nothing. Researchers and specialists just can’t be sure what will happen to each and every one of us.
He spoke secondly about heart health as being one of the best defenses against Alzheimer’s. A stroke can do more damage to the brain than Alzheimer’s, so by focusing on taking care of our heart, we strengthen the way our brain handles the disease. Heart health is the stuff we’ve always heard about: eating right, trying to keep cholesterol down, exercise, lowering stress, etc. But to note: there has been no substantial proof that playing brain games (crossword puzzles, reading, etc) or staying away from processed foods impacts Alzheimer’s disease one way or the other.
The one thing Dr. Beach reiterated was…there is NO way to know who will get Alzheimer’s disease. So I guess the decision for me to get a credible DNA test or not was somewhat answered…..I think.