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Fear of Alzheimer’s disease can prompt lifestyle changes

Concerns are not limited to people with higher risk

WASHINGTON — When Jamie Tyrone found out that she carries a gene that gives her a 91 percent chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease beginning around age 65, she sank into a depression so deep that at times she wanted to end her life.

Tyrone, a registered nurse who lives in San Diego, decided to fight back. She exercised, changed her diet, and began taking supplements, including fish oil, vitamin D, vitamin B12, curcumin, turmeric, and an antioxidant called CoQ10.

She started meditating and working mind-bending puzzles, such as Brain HQ. She joined a health clinic whose regimen is shaped by a UCLA medical study on lifestyle changes that can reverse memory loss in people with symptoms of dementia. She started a nonprofit group, Beating Alzheimer’s By Embracing Science (BABES), to raise money and awareness about dementia.

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Perhaps the only thing as bad as Alzheimer’s disease is the fear among a growing number of older Americans that they may be at risk for the neurodegenerative disorder, which robs memory and cognitive ability and is the leading cause of dementia.

A 2011 survey for the MetLife Foundation found that the only disease more dreaded than Alzheimer’s was cancer. A Harris Poll conducted in April for Aegis Living found that the worries cross all generations: more than 75 percent of millennials, Generation Xers, and baby boomers worry about what will happen to their memory as they age.

Some, like Tyrone, fear Alzheimer’s because genetic testing shows that their risks are higher than for others. Many more fear Alzheimer’s because they saw what the incurable disease can do. They saw a relative slip away through the steady erosion of memory, cognition, and identity as the disease progressed.

Now they worry whenever they misplace something or forget a name, and vow that they will do whatever they can to prevent or delay its onset.

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‘‘It’s my nightmare: the loss of my mind; the inability to recognize people who are dear to me; the ability to think,’’ said Charles Goldman, 71, a semiretired attorney who lives in Silver Spring, Md. Goldman, whose mother had Alzheimer’s, said he is vigilant for possible lapses in his own memory, but he also does everything he can to lower his risk of developing dementia.

He works out at a center. He reads like crazy, both fiction and nonfiction. He follows the news about possible new treatments or research studies. He does the crossword puzzles of every Sunday paper he can get his hands on. He gobbles almonds.

‘‘I can accept the idea I won’t be able to run 10K races. I can’t accept not being able to understand what people are saying or recognize people.’’

Joanne Omang, a former Washington Post correspondent, also watched her mother die of Alzheimer’s and saw how dementia transformed her and others.

‘‘People become like children in many ways. They steal food. They fight having baths. They become violent in many ways,’’ she said.

It’s different than death, and in some ways worse, the way her own mother seemed to disappear before her eyes, Omang said.

Like others, that was enough to spur her into action. Omang doesn’t consider herself a worrier, but ‘‘when I simply cannot remember the name of someone or something, when I know that I know it, I do ask myself, ‘Is this a sign?’ ‘‘ she said in an e-mail. ‘‘I’m keeping count.’’

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So Omang eats blueberries every day, having seen studies suggesting that the fruit is beneficial for brain health. She hits the gym almost every day for strength and aerobic workouts. She does word puzzles and keeps up the Spanish skills she honed in Latin America as a foreign correspondent. And she said that if she should develop dementia, she will move to a state that permits euthanasia so that she can die in peace.

More than 5 million people are living with Alzheimer’s, and as the population’s median age rises, the number of cases is expected to increase to 13.5 million by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

But the risks can also be overstated, especially for early-onset forms of dementia. Unless one has a genetic predisposition, Alzheimer’s strikes the majority of people after the age of 65, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. But aging itself is the biggest risk factor: The longer you live, the more likely you are to develop Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.