At The Gift of a Memory, our focus is to further awareness and create dialog around what can be an uncomfortable subject for most. By normalizing these traditionally difficult conversations about dementia we hope to make it easier for people to recognize the symptoms, seek an early diagnosis, be honest and open with each other, and even look at lifestyle adjustments as a preventative course of action.
By sharing our experiences we hope that you can take inspiration in finding the path that works for you and your family as you navigate your own dementia journey.
In this blog post you will hear about my experiences after discovering I had the APOE4 gene variant, and how that inspired my own health choices, and the lessons we learned along the way.
It began a few years ago when my wife Johnette and I used 23andMe to look into our ancestry as a Christmas gift to ourselves. However, we weren’t entirely prepared for what would come next after receiving our online reports.
As part of the 23andMe services you not only have the opportunity to access your ancestry report and list of DNA relatives but among other things you also have the option of reviewing your individual health and traits reports. It was here that I first discovered that I had one variant in the APOE gene.
Given that my mum had been diagnosed with Lewy body dementia I suppose that it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the APOE4 gene was detected.
As a little background, there are three types of the APOE gene, called alleles: APOE2, E3, and E4.
Everyone has two copies of the gene and the combination determines your APOE “genotype” – E2/E2, E2/E3, E2/E4, E3/E3, E3/E4, or E4/E4.
◾ The E2 allele is the rarest form of APOE and carrying even one copy appears to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by up to 40%.
◾ APOE3 is the most common allele and doesn’t seem to influence risk.
◾ The APOE4 allele, present in approximately 10-15% of people, increases the risk for Alzheimer’s and lowers the age of onset. Having one copy of E4 (E3/E4) can increase your risk by 2 to 3 times while two copies (E4/E4) can increase the risk by 12 times.
So, based on my genetic result of one copy of E4 (safe to say inherited from my mum’s side) I do have an increased risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
I think the key here is to focus on the idea that the presence of this variant isn’t necessarily a guarantee of developing the disease. It only means that your risk of developing it is increased but by no means is this a death sentence.
I always like to lean into the analogy by Dr. Mehmet Oz when I am looking for some reassurances;
“Remember, genetics loads the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger“
What this means is that we do still have a say so when it comes to how our future selves will prosper by making informed lifestyle choices now that tip the odds back in our favor. It stands to reason that by sleeping well, reducing stress and exposure to environmental toxins, and opting for healthy food options can all work together to do just that.
When I first learned about having the APOE4 variant I have to admit that I found that information overwhelming and a little scary! I had no idea what it all meant and boy did I have questions. We found a nutritionist who also happened to have the same E4 variant and before we knew it, Johnette and I were on a new path of exercise and healthier eating. Around the same time my wife also had some health issues that she wanted to address so we happily undertook this new regimen together and offered each other the support needed when changing fundamental lifestyle habits.
Now, here’s the thing… when my wife and I decide to do something, we don’t tend to half ass it! We typically fully commit and see where that takes us. Previously we’ve enjoyed amazing results in other areas of our lives with this outlook, but If I am honest I am not so sure this ‘all-in’ attitude lends itself quite so well to a wholesale diet change.
We weren’t unhealthy by any means but were at an age (44) where the body doesn’t bounce back so easily, processes things a little slower, and you begin to notice a little ‘middle-aged fluff’. So, we read the books, did our own research, cleaned out the pantry, held hands and jumped on down into the rabbit hole!
We landed on a version of the now popular and much publicized Keto diet. For us this meant eating an organic plant based diet, lots of salmon, limited carbs, increased ‘good fats’, and a thimble full of red wine and a nibble of dark chocolate in the evenings as a ‘treat’! We added in a variety of supplements, a schedule of intermittent fasting, and a mix of aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Needless to say we saw results, and they were quite immediate.
My health goals did not include drastic weight loss as I didn’t really have it to lose. Ok, perhaps a little tightening up around the middle but I didn’t wear a 10lb weight loss so well. I started to look skinny, not healthy, and I was experiencing dizzy spells as well as tiredness. Remember, I went into this to improve my general health and well-being as a way to decrease my chances of developing dementia later on in life.
Johnette also experienced rapid weight loss and lost 20lbs in a three month time period, dropping to around 127 lbs.
Like I say, when we set our minds to something we typically apply ourselves to the fullest, but in this case we acknowledge that we became over immersed in this way of life… to the detriment of our own health.
We kept this up for around three years but looking back now I can accept that this lifestyle change wasn’t sustainable. I am not a health practitioner and can only talk from our own experiences. So, before undertaking any change in diet I would strongly recommend consulting with a licensed health practitioner who can safely help you set realistic and achievable health goals as everyone’s bodies are different and respond differently.
We are still health conscious, eat organically, and exercise BUT we now do this in a more balanced way that doesn’t stress our bodies and put unrealistic expectations on ourselves. We enjoy a healthier relationship with food which I think is super important. Put it this way, I don’t beat myself up if I eat a plate of french fries (especially if they are Parmesan truffle fries!)… I just do things in moderation because I do want to enjoy the present as well as creating a better tomorrow for my future self.