Alzheimer’s disease now affects one out of every eight people over the age of 65 and approximately one in 1,000 people between the ages of 30 and 49. In some segments of our society, such as NFL football players, the rates are even more staggering, with the disease affecting one in 53 NFL retirees between the ages of 30 to 49 (the equivalent of one player per team).
With the total number of people affected by Alzheimer’s predicted to quadruple within the next 40 years, we need to find a new offensive against this unrelenting disease before it steals the minds of yet another generation. Predictive medicine provides us with a new, highly effective battle strategy that empowers us over Alzheimer’s. Using predictive medicine, we can now wage a new offensive against this, and many other diseases.
Until now, Alzheimer’s has been generally thought of as an incurable, unstoppable force of nature that strikes fear in the hearts of all. Patients in my own predictive medicine practice often tell me that they want to undergo comprehensive genetic screening in order to learn their risk for “everything ... except Alzheimer’s disease.” When I ask why, the answer is invariably, “Because there’s nothing I can do about it anyway.”
In truth, however, by instituting preventive measures as early as possible, we can significantly lower our risk of contracting Alzheimer’s disease so that it strikes much later or not at all. A necessary part of the process of becoming empowered over Alzheimer’s is first realizing that many preventive measures do exist and that we can effectively lower our risk. We are not powerless against this disease.
Contrary to what most people believe, Alzheimer’s is not a disease of old age. It is a disease that develops slowly throughout our lives. While we may not notice the symptoms until we are much older, it starts to attack the proper functioning of our brain decades before any symptoms appear. Because of this, lifelong preventive measures are warranted.
Predictive medicine, a revolutionary new field that combines genetic technology with proactive, personalized prevention, allows us to assess risk and institute prevention of Alzheimer’s, even in children. By conducting comprehensive genetic testing we can not only find out whether you are at risk for hundreds of diseases, including Alzheimer’s, but, more importantly, determine which preventions will be most effective in lowering your risk of contracting those diseases.
Predictive medicine’s goal is to enable you and your physician to institute genetically tailored prevention years or even decades before disease occurs. No more waiting for disease - no more waiting for suffering. With predictive medicine, you can protect yourself against disease while you are still healthy and strong.
Predictive medicine’s strategy in defeating Alzheimer’s is straightforward: first, we use genetic screening to identify those individuals who are at increased risk; second, for those who are at increased risk, we use further genetic analysis to determine the most effective forms of prevention; and third, we institute these genetically tailored preventive measures throughout the person’s life, starting as young as possible.
With a simple, relatively low-cost test requiring only some saliva (no needles, no blood), we can now predict who is at risk for Alzheimer’s and what will be the most effective methods of prevention against it. While there are many preventive strategies we can use against Alzheimer’s (all of which I discuss in my book, Outsmart Your Genes) one of the most powerful is actually quite simple: the avoidance of head injury.
We all contain a specific gene that helps the brain heal after injury, but approximately one in seven people contain changes within this gene, causing it to malfunction and rendering the brain less able to heal itself effectively following injury. While people with this abnormal gene have an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, their risk of the disease actually skyrockets if they suffer a head trauma such as a concussion. In these individuals, head injury is tantamount to throwing fuel onto a fire.
So finding out that you or your children have this abnormal gene provides the incentive for you to institute measures that will prevent the occurrence of significant head trauma. This might mean choosing not to play contact sports and/or making sure to always wear a helmet when rollerblading or biking.
Unfortunately, head injury is much more common than most people think, especially amongst high school, college and professional athletes. For example, more than 1 million teenagers play high school football, and a survey conducted in 2007 by The New York Times found that close to 50 percent of these athletes reported suffering one concussion, and 35 percent reported having sustained multiple concussions in a single season.
A 2010 Time magazine article also found that at the end of a single season, more than 70 percent of college football players reported concussion-like symptoms. And these numbers don’t take into account the head injuries suffered while playing other contact sports, including boxing, ice hockey and wrestling.
The link between head trauma and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s has already become evident to members of the National Football League, which recently started a program called the “88 Plan” to provide yearly monetary compensation to retired players who are suffering from Alzheimer’s. Preliminary results from a study now being conducted by the University of Michigan show that the rate of Alzheimer’s disease may be as much as 20 times higher in football players than in the general population. The numbers are so startling, in fact, that the US House Judiciary Committee convened a hearing several years ago to investigate the association between head injuries in the NFL and diseases of the brain, including Alzheimer’s.
By proactively limiting head injury throughout the life of those people who contain the abnormal gene that puts them at increased risk, we can significantly lower their risk of Alzheimer’s. And that is just one of the many genetically tailored preventive measures we can put into practice to battle this disease.
We no longer have to accept Alzheimer’s as inevitable. We no longer have to fear growing older. Genetic testing and predictive medicine gives us the ability to go forward knowing that we can control our own destiny. We can — and we will — win this war against Alzheimer’s. Through the use of genetic technology, we will prevail.
About The Author: Brandon Colby MD is the Founder of Sequencing.com, the world’s largest App Store for DNA. Dr. Colby created Sequencing.com for people who have already had genetic testing, such as from 23andMe, Ancestry.com and National Geographic, and want to continue to obtain valuable insights from their genetic data. While Dr. Colby invented the first set of apps, the App Store now contains dozens of apps that analyze genetic data and provide clear, personalized solutions for better health. Dr. Colby is also the author of Outsmart Your Genes, the definitive layman’s guide to the revolutionary fields of genomics and predictive medicine (also known as precision medicine). For additional information, please visit Sequencing.com.
An earlier version of this story was published by Dr. Colby in 2011.