Imagine driving in your car and suddenly not recognizing where you were going and having no idea how to find your way home. What if you looked across the breakfast table at your spouse and no longer recognized them? Or maybe you have to brace yourself every time you visit your parent, waiting for the day when they won’t know who you are. This is the reality for the estimated 50 million (worldwide) Alzheimer’s disease sufferers and their families.
In a world with an aging population, Alzheimer’s is a growing problem. Recent estimates suggest that 11% of people over the age of 65 have Alzheimer’s disease. For people 85 and older, that number increases to 32% (1).
Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating degenerative brain disease. It is the most common cause of dementia and is characterized by a decline in cognitive skills such as memory, language skills, communication and problem-solving abilities. These symptoms make it difficult for people with Alzheimer’s to perform everyday activities. It also is difficult to diagnose, even more, difficult to treat, and, as of now, impossible to cure.
A week ago Sunday, I walked among crowds of mothers, grandmothers, and children of all ages celebrating Mother’s Day at the Botanical Gardens in St. Louis, Missouri. As I watched happy families, I couldn’t help being jealous. Though I was there with my grandmother and other close relatives, I missed my mom, especially since I was in my hometown for her funeral the day before. Had my mom been alive and well, we might have walked those same paths ourselves and enjoyed the new life teeming above the earth. Instead, my mother lost her battle of more than six years with Lewy Body dementia the week before at the age of 61.
As a biologist, I was well-aware of Alzheimer disease in the abstract, and tau proteins, beta-amyloid, and genetic predisposition. But until my mom was diagnosed in 2008, I was painfully ignorant of dementias other than Alzheimer disease. Once we knew what mom was fighting, I learned that Alzheimer disease and Lewy Body are hardly unique. The number of other dementias that exist is long and includes vascular dementia, mixed dementia, Parkinson’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Huntington disease, and many others.Continue reading “Lessons From the ‘Long Goodbye’”
Forgetting. Forgetting your address; your spouse; your children; your friends; your life. It is something that none of us want to think about, but it hangs over some of us like a specter. Can’t remember if you fed the cat? Where you put your car keys? Did you forget to pack your lunch or return a phone call? Maybe you are trying to do too many things at once, or maybe you are tired. There are lots of perfectly normal reasons why we all forget things from time to time, but every time I forget something there is a nagging voice in my head saying, “Maybe it is something else.” Continue reading “Remembering Not to Forget”
In February of 2011, tragedy struck when Dave Duerson, a former Chicago Bears football player, committed suicide by shooting himself (1). However, Dave was not alone; his suicide joined the suicides and other violent endings to former and current football players such as Andre Waters (Philadelphia Eagles, Arizona Cardinals), Owen Thomas (U. Pennsylvania), and Kenny McKinley (Pittsburgh Steelers).
One could shrug off the deaths of these players are simple coincidence, if not for an elusive, yet chilling, central theme found in the depths of their brains: small, yet insidious, neurofibrillary tangles containing the microtubule-associated protein tau. Such tau-containing tangles are the molecular hallmarks of frontotemporal dementia (FTD) or Alzheimer’s Disease-riddled brains. The brains of people who are not diagnosed with FTD or Alzheimer’s Disease do not contain these tau tangles.
Without really trying to be, turns out I’m kind of wired for trivia. My brain seems to reserve lots of little nooks and crannies for bits of information that are probably entirely useless to my day-to-day life or career, but man, are they fun to pull out at parties. I can’t tell you why it’s easier for me to remember that horses are largely physiologically incapable of throwing up than it is to recall some of the names of my childhood friends, I just know that’s the way it is. I’ve learned to embrace it. But is trivia useful, or just a waste of gray matter? Turns out, absorption of trivia is a potential tool to engender positive brain plasticity (neuroplasticity), especially as we age and fight the good fight against dementia and memory loss. Continue reading “Neuroplasticity, trivia and a sprinkling of Twitter”
When the 1996 Olympics were being held in Atlanta, I remember Muhammad Ali lighting the torch at the opening ceremonies, and how he shook from the Parkinson disease that devastated his body.
Since the 1920s, repetitive head trauma has been recognized as a cause of loss of neurological function in boxers, a condition originally called “dementia pugilistica”.
I confess; I am a fan of the gladiator sport that is American football. I enjoy cheering for “my” Green Bay Packers, and I have even been to a game at historic Lambeau field. But I was astounded (and disappointed) when the big concussion brouhaha started in the NFL a couple of years ago, and the NFL seemed surprised that head injuries were linked to long-term neurological issues (1).
The concussion discussion continues in the NFL this year with the recent decision by the NFL to enforce, more strictly, the existing rules against illegal hits that are “devastating blows” or “head shots” because of a bad weekend when multiple players were sidelined with injuries resulting from helmet-to-helmet or “devastating” hits (2).
It’s an important discussion, not because it affects the NFL and how the game of football is played, but because it gets attention and resources placed toward understanding repeat head injuries and their long-term consequences.
A recent study published in the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology (3), takes a first step to understanding the long-term consequences of repetitive head injuries. Continue reading “Head Shots”
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