The biggest lies are the ones we tell ourselves.
I talk about Alzheimer's disease a lot. We discuss the risk factors often on the show. We update viewers on new prevention tips and what doctors know about new treatments for the disease. But when it came to my own family, I completely missed the signs of one of the most feared diseases that currently affects more than 5 million people in the U.S. That number is expected to nearly triple by 2060.
In 2019, I found out that my mother, Suna, had Alzheimer's. Hearing the official diagnosis was devastating. But just as painful for me was the realization that the signs were there all along — I had just been overlooking them.
Though this story is personal for me, I want to highlight how important it is to speak up and how easy it is to miss the signs. Often, with a disease like Alzheimer's, you don't want to be the whistleblower. Accusing someone of showing signs of the disease can not only be upsetting to the family but can be met with a lot of denial.
But I want to relay an important message: The power that one person holds is immense. Early intervention is the key to Alzheimer's prevention and slowing down its progress. And it only takes one person to say something.
Warning Signs of Alzheimer's
When my mom's stubbornness increased, I simply blamed it on her getting older. My sister noticed she started doing her makeup differently for the first time in 60 years but kept it to herself. When my mom started giving some of her belongings away to people she barely knew, I thought she was just trying to lighten her load following my father's passing. But these seemingly subtle changes were in fact the first indicators of Alzheimer's.
There are six early symptoms you should never ignore like I did:
- Challenges in planning
- Difficulty completing tasks
- Confusing time and place (My mom would often ask me to come over for lunch, not realizing I was in the U.S. and it would require an 11-hour flight to get to Turkey.)
- Problems with words
- Trouble understanding visuals (My mom requested that we move her sofa to a corner of the room it clearly wouldn't fit in.)
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
If you suspect these signs in a loved one, bring up the possibility of Alzheimer's in a non-accusatory way. Or, you can speak with their physician or other family members.
I Have the APOE4 Alzheimer's Gene
After learning my mother has Alzheimer's, I wanted to find out what my risks were. I met with my friend Dr. Richard Isaacson, the director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine, to learn what I can do to reduce my risk of getting this disease. Dr. Isaacson introduced me to his ABC testing model, a comprehensive approach to try and prevent me from developing the disease.
The A test stands for anthropometrics and involved testing for body fat and composition. I was surprised to hear from Dr. Isaacson that belly fat can be directly related to how well your memory functions.
We moved on to the B test, which stands for blood biomarkers. Dr. Isaacson examined my blood pressure, cholesterol and genes and found that one of my LDL numbers (bad cholesterol) was a little higher than he'd like it to be. This really surprised me because, by most standards, my number was fine — but not when it comes to the brain. There are many different paths to Alzheimer's, and my slightly higher cholesterol could potentially increase my risk of developing the disease.
We also found out that I had a copy of the APOE4 gene that puts me at a higher risk for Alzheimer's. It's a gene that 25% of the population has. But as Dr. Isaacson reminded me, your genes are not your destiny.
Finally, we moved on to the C test, which measured cognitive function. This test made me the most nervous. I can no longer remember some of my high school classmates' names, but did that mean there were serious cognitive issues I had to worry about? This test had both paper and computer activities, where I was required to match words with pictures and even identify different kinds of smells.
After this test, Dr. Isaacson noted that my overall memory was good, but my face and name associative memory wasn't perfect.
My Plan: Boosting My Health to Prevent Alzheimer's
After receiving my results, Dr. Isaacson wanted me to focus on two things:
One of the best things you can do for your brain is to participate in start-and-stop forms of exercise. Dr. Isaacson started me on an Omega-3 supplement to lower my cholesterol and encouraged me to increase my intake of vitamin B12.
You too can turn back the clock on cognitive aging. It's important to know that no matter what your genes say, you can take control of your lifestyle and ultimately lower your risk for Alzheimer's.
Your Next Steps: Know Your Risk of Alzheimer's
I want everybody to go get their blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar checked. You want to get these things under control because — believe it or not — they can actually lower your risk for Alzheimer's disease. Research suggests that even if your genes put you at risk, lifestyle changes can make a difference.
I know not everyone can visit Dr. Isaacson and get the full ABC testing done on a whim. But you can make the first move by taking the C test, focusing on cognitive face-name placement, online for free now. Take your results to your next doctor's visit, where your doctor can suggest additional activities that can help restore your memory function (as was the case with me), or even take you through additional testing if they believe there's a cause for concern.
The biggest lies are the ones we tell ourselves. It was painful to admit that my mother's health was declining, but doing so allowed us to get her help as soon as possible. You have the power to speak up and say something if you suspect any of the above symptoms in a loved one. Doing so may be uncomfortable, but it just might help slow down the Alzheimer's progression in someone you love.
This essay was published on Sept. 9, 2019. On Oct. 16, 2019, Dr. Oz shared an update on his mother's condition and discussed a new potential Alzheimer's nasal spray that's in the works.
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