By TIA CAROL JONES
Astrid Mack, 83, spent more than 30 years in Miami, Florida, most of it applying his doctorate in human genetics to the study of sickle cell anemia.
Mack moved to Chicago in 2017, and now he is taking part in the scientific study of another disease – Alzheimer’s.
He found out five months ago that he has the disease, so he signed up to be one of 11 residents at Montgomery Place who are participating in the Rush Memory and Aging Project.
“I wanted to participate so more can be learned from my results,” Mack said. “More can be learned about the disease.”
November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, first designated so by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. An estimated five million people in the United States suffer from the disease.
According to Tracey Nowakowski, MA, research supervisor at Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, the purpose of the Rush Memory Project is to find out what is protecting some people from Alzheimer’s Disease and what is putting others at risk.
The study is 21 years old; through its years, more than 2,200 people have participated in the study.
Another study, the religious order study, also was facilitated by the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center. It looked at people in religious orders and what risk factors lead to dementia, and it will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year. Nowakowski said the goal of both studies is to recruit healthy older adults and study the risk factors involved in the disease. Those adults, age 65 or older, also agree to donate their brains when they die. They also agree to yearly testing — brain scans and MRIs — which can be hours of testing.
“We try to keep it around the same time every year to see if any changes are taking place,” she said.
Nearly 1,000 people and more than 40 retirement communities are involved in the Rush Memory and Aging Project. Researchers went to Montgomery Place in the summer to solicit participants for the study.
“It is easier to track participants in retirement communities,” Nowakowski said.
Nowakowski said she is expecting more participants from Montgomery Place.
“People hear about it by word of mouth, we expect a few more people to trickle in,” she said.
Dottie Barron, 89, and her husband, Bill, 93, also agreed to participate in the study.
“The opportunity was there so I figured if I could help with the research, I should do it,” Barron said. “I hope they find something useful to treat or prevent the disease.”
Those participants have to be healthy and know what they are signing up for. Nowakowski said throughout the 21 years, 815 autopsies have been performed.
“We’re looking for signs of Alzheimer’s, plaques and tangles in the brain,” she said. “Other possible causes of dementia. Looking for abnormalities in the brain (through the autopsies).”
Nowakowski said one of the intriguing facts that has emerged from the autopsies is that some people can have plaques and tangles in their brains, but they don’t show any signs of the disease. “What is protecting these people?” she wondered.
In the article, “Banking Against Alzheimer’s,” David Bennett, director of the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, wrote that “virtually all brains in old age contain some pathological signs of Alzheimer’s disease, but only some people suffer any symptoms as a result. Those who develop dementia appear to have greater cognitive reserve to fall back on.”
Mack said since his diagnosis he has tried to find ways to slow the progress of the disease.
“I’ve been doing all of the reading I can get my hands on. I read to keep my brain functioning,” he said. “And, trying to get as much oxygen to my brain as I can.”
Mack said he exercises on the treadmill for an hour every day. He also walks through Montgomery Place, on each floor, and to the drug store. He credited living in the retirement community with his ability to stay active.
“I keep engaged in a couple of the groups we have here,” Mack said. “This community I am living in at Montgomery Place turned out to be 100 percent more than I expected.”