Nearly 4 million people now suffer from Alzheimer’s disease -- a number that will only increase as baby boomers grow older. Now, a new study hopes to enlist 1,000 families over the next three years in an effort to find a possible genetic link.
Ten siblings belonging to the Weiss family may help unlock important scientific secrets. Six are still alive, including 89-year-old Helen Marinaro. Even so, her daughter, Brenda Goldfine, feels that a part of her mother is gone.
“I tell her things about my children and my grandchildren and I know she’s not getting it,” says Goldfine.
Just nine years ago at her grandson’s wedding, Marinaro was able to hold a microphone and tell him, “I love you and we’re having a heck of a good time here.”
But today, at the doctor’s office with her daughter, when the doctor points to Goldfine and asks, “What’s her name?” Marinaro responds, “my sister Brenda.”
Marinaro has probable late-onset Alzheimer’s -- probable because a true diagnosis can only be made after death. She’s not alone. Two of her deceased siblings had the disease while her surviving brother, David, and sister, Anne, share the same diagnosis.
Search for genetic clues
This entire extended family has become part of a nationwide study. One thousand families in all will be recruited in an effort researchers hope will yield critical clues to Alzheimer's.
“When you see a family that has three or four people who have Alzheimer’s who are in their 80s, that’s a family we have to get a hold of because they can tell us a lot about the genetics of this disease," says Dr. Richard Mayeux of the Columbia University Medical Center.
One defective gene has already been located, but researchers are certain more crucial ones can be found to identify and even treat those at risk.
While the exact cause of Alzheimer's is not yet known, some things are evident. Those who have a parent with late onset Alzheimer’s are twice as likely to get the disease and the more relatives affected, the greater the odds.
Still, Goldfine remains upbeat. “I just remind my children that when I start acting more weirdly than they think I do now, that I’m not doing it to them, that it’s happening to me.”
But the genetic link may go on to affect her grown sons and even the next generation -- her grandchildren.
Goldfine says her family is taking part in the study and offering their DNA in the hopes that their efforts may one day help find a cure for the cruel disease.
“I’m hopeful we’ll be able to do something. I truly, truly am," says Goldfine. "(It's) in my genes. It’s part of my family.”
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