“I am a research participant because I see what my mother is going through, and I want to help,” said one research participant. “I’m also scared for my health and for my children’s health.”

Highest risk, highest need

Having a parent with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) increases your risk for the disease. As there is no cure for AD, Scientists are pursuing lifestyle and pharmaceutical trials in hopes of preventing or slowing the disease in high risk individuals, including AD family caregivers.

“In order to help as many individuals at possible, we need to enroll people who are at the highest risk for AD.”

“In order to help as many individuals at possible, we need to enroll people who are at the highest risk for AD. This includes people with a family history and family caregivers, particularly women and African Americans,” says Dr. Whitney Wharton, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Emory Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. Dr. Wharton conducts AD prevention trials in people with an AD parental history. “While a person cannot change the fact that they have a family history, these are the people who we should enroll because they stand to benefit the most from an intervention.”

The full impact

People with a family history are at risk, in part, because of genetics, but that is not the whole story. Alzheimer’s disease is devastating illness that affects entire families. AD family caregivers report higher levels of stress, depression and isolation than non-caregivers, and often neglect their own physical and mental health because they are too busy caring for others. Middle-aged adults caring for a parent are particularly vulnerable because middle-age is the time when AD-related brain changes begin, and when the physiological effects of high blood pressure, stress, poor nutrition and lack of exercise start to have lasting effects.

Research in AD family caregivers yields valuable information about AD changes and modifiable risk factors — those which we can change — such as blood pressure, sleep and stress. Dr. Wharton is currently enrolling participants with an AD family history for trials involving blood pressure, stress, art therapy, Tango dance and exercise. By studying these interventions in individuals with a parental history, we have a higher likelihood of developing therapeutic strategies that will help the people most affected by this devastating disease.