I love science. For Christmas this year, I asked for a telescope and I received a very cool one that I don’t have to squint my eye to use plus it tracks the planets as the earth rotates. I haven’t used it much because of how darn cold it’s been but as soon as the weather straightens up, just try to get me to come inside on a clear night.
The science of DNA and genetics has always interested me as well. A couple of years ago Bill gave me a 23andMe Genetic Testing and Analysis kit for my birthday. I love this kind of stuff - being able to take college biology in my forties made me a very happy girl. It took me a stupid amount of time to find my slide sample in the microscope but when I finally did, heaven. I was even able to make e.coli glow and not botch it up - pretty simple experiment but if anyone can make it come out a little odd, it’s me. My professor seemed to be amused by my backward way of doing things (I’m left handed so I have a permanent pass); I can still hear him announce, “Mrs. Geiser! How can I assist you today?” almost every time I set up lab space. I would take that class again if I could.
Anyhow, back to 23andMe. The ancestry part was interesting, no real surprises. I’m mostly Northwestern European; British, Irish, French, German, and Scandinavian. The part that really tickled me though, was that out of the over 1,100 people on the site that I’m related to, I’m in fourth place for having the most Neanderthal variants (there has to be a competitive gene in there somewhere). With 293 variants, I have more than 74% of all 23andMe customers and I have my Neanderthal relatives to thank for my height. Fascinating.
Stick with me, I’m getting to the point of all this.
The site also tests your DNA for carrier status and genetic health risks if you want them to. As more tests are done on my sample, I will occasionally get a notice that I have a new health report. For almost all the tests they have run on my DNA, I’m not a carrier nor do I have a gene associated with a genetic disease, like Parkinson’s. I say “almost” because I do have a genetic variant for age-related macular degeneration which is good to know. I told my ophthalmologist, he noted it in my records, and suggested some supplements to take. No big deal.
A few months ago, I received an email from 23andMe that there was a new health report in my records. I opened it and it, and after a few “disclaimers” and “are you sure you want to know?” windows I got to the report stating that I have the e4 version, or allele, of the APOE gene which is associated with late-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. I only have one, not two, so my genetic risk isn’t as high as it could be but I’d really rather not have any at all. The quickie stats* for females with one copy of the APOE e4 variant are as follows:
Age 65 less than 1% chance
Age 75 5% to 7%
Age 85 27% to 30%
No APOE e4 variant 6% to 10%
General population of women less than 1% to 14%
*this information was compiled by 23andMe
So now I need to sort out how I feel about this. I could take a glass half full approach and be happy that there is about a 70% chance that this little gene stays asleep and I skate through my 80s with my memory intact. If I had never been exposed to someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s (at this point, maybe mom has Alzheimer’s - either way that ship has sailed) I think I would have read the report and thought, well shoot, that kind of sucks and moved on. From where I’m looking at it, the glass is most definitely half empty and it more than sucks; it terrifies me. Not in a paralyzing, I can’t move on with my life, it’s all I think about way. It’s more like a little tic tac time bomb has been implanted in my brain and I can hear that bad boy ticking away. The ticking is very quiet and may not ever mean a thing, but it’s still there.
I did some reading about the gene and looked into what I could do to help myself: eat well, exercise regularly, and never stop learning and challenging my body and brain. Check, check, and check. Through my reading, I ran across some sobering facts at the Alzheimer's Association website. Did you know that deaths from heart disease have decreased by 14% since 2000? That’s great news. Did you know that since 2000, deaths from Alzheimer’s have increased by 89%? Well, hell. And there’s the movie Still Alice with Julianne Moore. That gave me something to think about. A lot of something. There’s so much information out there and so much to learn about Alzheimer’s; however, the more I read the further down the rabbit hole I found myself going so I had to put it aside.
There’s always a chance that being with mom is the closest I’ll come to dementia or Alzheimer’s. Plus, there are so many positive, wonderful things I have to look forward to - I’m not going to let something I have minimal control over muddy things up. And really, who’s to say I won’t get taken out by some wayward pelican on one of my walks by the lake? Or have my number come up on the Northwest Expressway? I’ve been in a wreck there, believe me, I know all too well it could happen in the blink of an eye. None of us are guaranteed tomorrow or even the rest of today so I’ll be grateful for what I have right now and keep doing what I’m doing the best way I know how.
In hindsight, would I still want to know? I can say with 100% certainty I would. Mostly because I would take my own advice. For example: Whenever my son took a test or a final while he was at OU, I’d ask him how he did - he’d tell me how he felt he did, but he refused to check his grade online until I threatened to check it myself. It was as if the act of checking it somehow made it gather up molecules and become real. For a kid who usually uses logic as a weapon, this behavior made zero sense to me. Whether you know the outcome or not, it’s still there. It exists. And you may have time to do something about it.
"Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones." - Thich Nhat Hanh