Note: this is first in a series of posts about women and Alzheimer's
When I was home during intersession in my junior year of college, I went with my mother to visit my grandmother in a nursing home. She had what was called "hardening of the arteries." An articulate, determined, domineering woman-of-her-era, she was now a confused, rambling old lady. I watched as my mother gathered her mother's soiled laundry to wash at home. Until then, my mother's laundering skills were nil - unless you counted her rinsing out her nylons at night. But this was her mother and our family now - both figuratively and literally - did not wash our dirty linen in public.
When I was 24, I brought my 3-month-old baby daughter to introduce to my grandmother. By then my grandmother simply stared ahead in a daze, her face hardened, angry about the hand life had dealt her. To be honest she looked so forbidding I was worried that she might scare my baby. My mother took her swaddled grandchild and showed it to her mother.
"Look Mom, it's your great granddaughter, Alissa - Trish's daughter." My Grandmother looked back and forth at the baby, her daughter, her granddaughter, trying to comprehend.
"Do you want to hold her?" I asked. I gently handed her my baby, making sure I was able to catch her should she fall. "She's yours, Mama. Your great-grandchild.''
And for the first time in years, my grandmother smiled, than grinned, then laughed. Nurses gathered; residents, too. It was as though we were having a birthday party. And maybe that's what it was. My grandmother knew she was at the end of her life, but this baby, this precious blood relative, would ensure that she lived on.
A short twenty years later, I visited a nursing home again - this time to see my own mother. No longer called "hardening of the arteries" or "senility," my mom was a victim of the new version - Alzheimer's
The haze had gotten her. An articulate, determined, force-of-life, my mom had disappeared into the unforgiving chasm of this hideous disease. One generation to the next; one mother to the next.
Would I be next? Mothers passing on the Alzheimer's torch to their daughters is hardly a unique pattern. Scientifically, we are told, AD is not a function of heredity; episodically, it certainly seems to be. Maybe it is because women are more likely than men to develop Alzheimer's. Why? We live longer and the biggest risk for getting Alzheimer's is aging. On average a girl born in 2005 is expected to live until 80. However, a boy born in 2005 is expected to live until 75. AD is the female reward for longevity.
And then there is the sobering statistic from the Alzheimer's Association that 3.4 million of the 5.4 million Americans living with the disease are women - that's almost two-thirds. (This figure doesn't even touch on the 15 million caregivers - but that's for another time.) To me, the golden years look pretty tarnished.
Recently, at The Society for Women's Health issue conference, researchers acknowledged that there are gender-based differences in the likelihood of getting this disease AND that there is a slightly greater incidence of maternal hereditary impact. Trust me: this is not an issue I want to be right about.
I am like my Mother and Grandmother. I am determined and I am a woman of my era. I am a Baby Boomer. We don't go down without a good fight. So I will fight this disease by nagging Congress for research dollars, urging the FDA to ease some requirements, and encouraging researchers to hurry up. We are running against time.
Bette Davis once said, "Getting old is not for sissies." Lady, you can say that again.
Photo courtesy Trish Vradenburg