genetics

FAMILY GENETICS, OR DON’T WORRY BE HAPPY

DNA molecule

Only time can tell whether Alzheimer's is transmitted through the gene pool, in the mean time live life to its fullest.

My mother was one of ten children: six girls and four boys.  Mother, Irene, and one sister, Elaine, were victims of Alzheimer’s.  It would appear that two out of the four boys were also stricken,  all developing AD in their later years. Keeping with those same statistics, several of the siblings died at or before they reached 60, with one in her 40s. Whether some of them would have succumbed to Alzheimer’s is pure conjecture.  Yet, the four out of 10 is 40%.

In retrospect, I would say the Alzheimer’s gene came through our grandfather who died in his 50s as a victim of pernicious anemia.  Possibly, AD would have come to him later in his life had he lived, but that, of course, is another guess.  It did not come to our grandmother who died at 84. She could be stubborn, a bit cantankerous, and a little forgetful, but her quirks didn’t seem to fall under the guidelines of anything from the Dementia Umbrella.  In that same search of the past and from the stories and memories my mother told about her early childhood including remembrances of her mother, I do believe my grandmother was afflicted with attention deficit disorder, ADD.  So far, and not to my knowledge, ADD does not fall under the Dementia Umbrella.

My grandmother was proficient, though, in being able to run a somewhat organized farm life.  In addition she had her own system of birth control spacing her babies every two years (having at least one miscarriage following the birth of Irene leaving a four-year space between her and the first son).  My grandmother’s last child, a boy, was born just six months before my older sister, making him more like a cousin than an uncle.

Mama’s sister Elaine seemed to have been a little off center all during her adult life.  It wasn’t as if she lacked intelligence, it was just the fact that she seemed to be what my sisters and I called, “a little bit dingy.”  She and her husband were childless, and, perhaps, that may have influenced her life of self-importance and indulgences.  With no one to be concerned with except Elaine, her world appeared extremely limited to us.  She seemed to skate on the surface of life like the water skitters I remember buzzing over the top of stagnant pools as the creek dried up near our grandparent’s property.  Our aunt was limited in her scope, never venturing beyond where her focus was, paying no heed to anything above or below the surface of her tight, little pond. Signs for actual AD diagnosis began to appear in her 50s suggesting she was a victim of Early Onset Alzheimer’s, and possibly before.

Her husband Ray cared for her at home, with the help of my sister, Janet, for as long as he could manage. When he could no longer cope, they reluctantly found a good full-care facility where Ray hovered over his beloved wife spending every moment possible.  However, during his visits it wasn’t at all unusual for Elaine to dismiss him in favor of the familiarity of other residents which left her devoted husband shattered.  Eventually, even the familiarity of the familiar became illusive for Elaine and little by little she slipped into the nothingness of AD leaving only her shell which seemed to cling to life with the tenacity of a last leaf.  She outlived Ray by most of her 10-year confinement as Janet continued to supervise her care.

As more and more is learned about the diseases falling under the Dementia Umbrella, I see concern looming over the horizon when Ken’s and my adult children speak of the possibility of AD in their years ahead. The knowledge that both sides of their paternal grandparents have victims, and a few of Ken’s first cousins developed full-blown Alzheimer’s the future can appear daunting for the next generation.  There is fear: of course they have fear and the ever-present question, “Will I be a victim?”

As we continue our discussions I mention that the jury is still out on me and my two sisters.  I get the glance and then a possible eye roll.  “Mom!  You’re not going to get Alzheimer’s.  What do you mean the jury is still out?”  Then I remind them that my mother was in her mid-eighties when we saw the first signs.   I also remind them that there is no history whatsoever of AD existing in my father’s family and their longevity also extends into a near century.  “Hello.” I tell them in an effort of reassurance, “The genes which make up the life force in you – my children — include the strong genes of my father’s family as well as all of your other early p;rogenators.”  As our p.c. doctor mentioned when I first asked about AD and Ken the wise doctor said, “At conception, there are numbers beyond measure from which to draw the genes for a fetus.  I would say that Ken’s chances are possibly yes, and possibly no.”

The wise part from our doctor’s declaration wasn’t said in exact words, but I see it now.  He meant for me and Ken to live our life together to its fullest and deal with the problem if and when it arrives, which we did.  Even as the disease progressed we lived our lives to their fullest.   My wonder – and worry — about worry is, “Can worry cause more worry – and that worry become a problem – creating an illness through worry — thus triggering AD into a self-fulfilling prophesy?”  How much bombarding of our psyche with negative worries can a psyche endure without succumbing to that worry?  Again, a question without answers.

Statistics tell us that if we live long enough 50% of the population will have Alzheimer’s.  That’s one in every two people.  Presently, there aren’t many options:  testing is the most promising – if you can call it promising – and if you want to know the answer.  If you know, then early treatment is a good thing, and even that’s not without questions.  Perhaps we should all take a deep breath, relax in the moment — and in that moment – those moments – don’t worry, be happy.   Then burst into song with Doris Day as she belts out “Que Sera Sera,” or in other words, “What will be, will be.”

Photo courtesy of  http://www.flickr.com/photos/wheatfields/with/2074121298/

Originally posted 2011-09-17 20:03:10.

VALENTINE’S DAY, LOVE, KISSES AND SWEAT CONQUERS ALL,MAYBE EVEN ALZHEIMER’S

Ken Romick, Alzheimer's patient at age 4

Ken was adorable at age 4 . . .

It says so right in the “Fairy Tale Book.”  Well, maybe not the sweat part — but love is supposed to conquer all. What — if not St. Valentine’s Day — reminds us of the striking power of love? Didn’t the prince awaken Snow White with love’s first kiss?  The same with Sleeping Beauty after she pricked her finger on a needle and fell into a deep sleep, a curse placed by a wicked fairy.  Then there was the frog that turned into the handsome prince when the beautiful princess kissed him. And it was not only the kiss but Beauty’s love and devotion which changed the Beast and lifted his curse.  Ah, yes, Valentine’s Day, love, Fairy Tales, kisses and Disney; what would we do without them?

Love, though, is not confined to fairy tales or animation; grown-up movies can also attest to love conquering all.  Some are found in today’s Hollywood, but many of the more memorable ones were popular when I was young and filled with dreams of romance and love. Of course the all-time favorite is “An Affair To Remember” starring Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr and The Empire State Building.  Less remembered were Robert Young and Martha Scott in “The Enchanted Cottage” a story about a crippled man and a scarred woman who met and married with the belief that because of their physical shortcomings, they deserved no better.  However, when they moved into the cottage, holding no magic at all, these good people began to see and love one another for who they really were; neither seeing the disfigurement of the other.  It was that kind of love, devotion and commitment which cast the cottage with enchantment.

Alzheimer's patient, Ken Romick.

and a real heart-throb as a young man.

In this analogy, though, we must remember that these “story” people were mature adults and as mature adults, they were able to see beyond some of the superficiality one might find in younger visions of love and romance, or fairy tales.

However, fiction isn’t fact – or theory — so let’s momentarily turn to Darwin’s analysis of the species to find out what he believed spurred “love” and replenishing the earth. Actually, he sounds pretty on target when it comes to youth choosing a mate: Natural selection he called it — survival of the fittest – which summation was long before the introduction of genetics – and in my humble opinion was describing not much more than, “cute, shapely, healthy girl meets really cute, well-built, healthy guy, and perhaps, the introduction of sweat smells as part of the falling-in-love process.

As Don, the husband of my friend Sofia, said when their young people and our young people were entering into the selection age, “She wouldn’t even look at a guy if he didn’t smell like a locker room” — more aptly put — “if he didn’t smell like sweat.”  In biological terms, still using Darwin’s theory regarding survival of the fittest, her attraction to him smelling of sweat meant some of his other traits were good-looking, strong, athletic and he would make a good provider. In addition — probably in her subconscious mind or not – he would be fit, virile and a highly favorable contributor to the future generation.  Darwin’s theory about sifting humanity through natural selection would then leave anyone that was not considered to be of the first category – those not smelling of sweat, or less sweaty – less cute, shapely and adorable — to find each other at another level of selection and reproduction – if they were strong and healthy enough to move forward with the process.

My analysis of this multifaceted section of Darwin’s theory, I must admit, is loosely contrived and overly simplistic, but still there are other factors not considered. For instance, beauty and attraction are in the eyes of the beholder.  Mr. Locker Room may find his Valentine to be a skinny, studious bookworm, and vice versa. Then, again, there’s the complex subject of genetics, and not to be forgotten is the power of love and the human spirit – over and above the physical.

My friend, Madalyn, and I often talk about the similar paths our lives have taken regarding Alzheimer’s, and we wonder if we had known the genetic factors of our mates when we made our selections, would we have made other choices.  Would we have said, “I can’t marry you because when you get older you may be afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease?”  Or, being young and in love would we have been assured that love would conquer all?

Even if it were today, when testing for the Alzheimer’s gene can be made, would we insist upon a test, and if the test was not what we hoped would we still go ahead and marry these men? It would be foolish to even try to speculate the answer to such an unknown.  Actually, I’m glad I didn’t have to consider the question.  My guess, though, would be to say that love is courageous, gutsy – and blind — to adversity.

Just as we are all born, we all will die.  Adversity is part of the human experience, and I don’t know of anyone who has escaped without some kind of hardship in their life – often coming like sheets of rain with one disastrous storm following the other.  Somehow, we all are challenged with events which we would rather do without, but we survive and we go on, and most of us are stronger for it.  Even with the greatest of adversity we have a choice: walk away or accept.  If we choose to accept, there is yet another choice: do it grudgingly or do it willingly and with love.

No choice is easy.  At first there might be “Why me?” but with acceptance the adversity can become a challenge to be met and then one to be embraced.  My love for Ken cannot conquer AD, but my love for him can conquer problems that accompany the adversity by incorporating what shows up in my life and seeing it through — enduring to the end – and doing it with a cheerful and giving heart.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t times of angst or sadness, and even sobbing, wrenching tears – and anger — a natural mourning for oneself and for a loved one caught in the clutches of a despicable illness.  Nevertheless, we go on.

Each night, after my husband is in bed and drifting off to sleep I bend over him; placing one hand on both of his (to avoid a possible left hook) and then I kiss him on the forehead.  Occasionally, if he allows, I kiss his lips whispering, “I love you.”  His eyes are closed and there are times, not often, but times when his face becomes relaxed and serene and he’ll say, “I love you too.”  At that instant love has conquered. He is the man I selected in my youth: a tad craggy and a bit jowly now, but handsome still with a wonderfully straight nose and a pleasant smile.  I am content – momentarily at peace — and I can almost smell the locker room. Happy Valentine’s Day Ken.

 

Originally posted 2012-02-10 23:19:46.

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