I recently attended an event for The Judy Fund, a Los Angeles-based group created by Elizabeth Gelfand-Stearns who lost both her grandmother and her mother, Judy (the fund's namesake), to Alzheimer's disease. Her heartfelt passion is finding a cure for the disease that took her loved ones. To date, the group has raised almost $5 million to fund research and advocacy efforts for the Alzheimer's Association in support of the more than 5 million Americans who have Alzheimer's as well as the 15 million family members nationwide who are caring for them.
What made this evening special were the headliners: two rock stars in their respective medical specialties, Dr. Jill Kalman, a noted cardiologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, and Dr. Maria Carrillo, vice president of medical and scientific relations for the Alzheimer's Association. Together, they addressed the twin terrors many women in the audience are concerned about: heart disease and Alzheimer's disease.
The American Heart Association has done a superb job raising public awareness that heart disease is the No. 1 killer for women (and for men). Although one in three women still die from heart disease, education about prevention is on the rise.
As the red dress-clad Dr. Kalman told the audience, "The brain gives the heart its sight and the heart gives the brain its vision." Insightful words as the message for the evening was a dialogue about how Alzheimer's advocates can take heart and follow the blueprint that heart disease (which has now evolved to heart health) has provided on how to combat an epidemic.
Dr. Carrillo was riveting as she outlined recent research being done, particularly in the area of familial Alzheimer's disease also known as autosomal dominant Alzheimer's disease (ADAD). A comprehensive study is being conducted in families who carry a gene for Alzheimer's, which, if inherited, guarantees they get the disease at a young age -- 30s, 40s or early 50s. ADAD is very rare and the families who are affected by this type of Alzheimer's usually are aware of the gene in their families.
I was astounded to learn that ADAD family members who do develop Alzheimer's disease do so at the exact same age their parent developed the disease. If a parent was diagnosed at age 42, then a child who carries the gene also develops Alzheimer's at age 42. Dr Carrillo also discussed recent updates in the early diagnosis of sporadic Alzheimer's disease, the most typical form of Alzheimer's affecting more than 5 million Americans. This set off a skyrocket of hands in the audience and much discussion around whether families want to know and should know (if a test ever becomes widely available) how to predict your future Alzheimer's diagnosis years ahead of your first warning signs. Both doctors agreed -- it is better to be informed than to be living in denial or ignorance.
While much debate always follows any exciting news, the results of this study are still years away.
Where does that leave us today? According to the docs, what we do know is that healthier lifestyle behaviors (exercise, nutrition, good sleep), knowledge of our family health histories, and reduction of stress in our lives will improve both heart health and brain health.
We can make lifestyle choices that keep both the heart and the brain healthy. For instance, we know that a higher BMI (body mass index) and higher cholesterol (particularly the bad LDL kind) is certainly a risk factor for heart disease and may be a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease. We also know inflammation is bad -- it is connected to the brain abnormality typical of Alzheimer's patients and it is a common problem for victims of stroke and heart attack. This is why it is so important for family caregivers to pay attention to both the heart and the head.
Often caregivers neglect themselves. Studies show caregivers are twice as likely as the general population to develop chronic illness -- heart disease, diabetes, asthma and other health problems -- because of prolonged stress. Both doctors agreed family caregivers typically become more ill or even die before the demise of their loved one for whom they are caring. Becoming a caregiver should be added to the list of risks for heart disease and a whole host of other health ailments.
As a caregiver, you use your heart to provide compassionate comfort and support to a loved one. Now use your head -- if you become ill or too exhausted to continue to care, what will become of your loved one and of you? Avoid what I call the Caregiver Achilles heel -- the inability to ask for help and accept the help offered. Try creating an online volunteer help community such as the Alzheimer's Association Care Team Calendar where friends and family can give you a break with the kids, help with your mom, or perform every day chores such as making a meal or raking the leaves when you are too overwhelmed to manage it all.
Judy Gelfand was a Juilliard-trained pianist diagnosed with Alzheimer's at age 62. Her family cared for her for almost 10 years before she lost her battle with the disease. And although she is gone, her legacy lives on in her family's efforts to find the clues on how to stop Alzheimer's in its tracks. It is her daughter, Elizabeth, who created an evening to show how much our hearts and brains are connected in this fight.
The message is simple: Find the balance between caring for your loved one and caring for yourself. Your heart and your head will love you for it.