Man driven to find cure for Alzheimer's after mother's early death

Alzheimer's can affect people as early as their 40s, doctors say

KPRC(KPRC)-- For Mike McGuff, life is all about creating precious memories with his two boys, James and David.

The Texas web designer and creator of the popular media blog realizes just how quickly life can change and one's memory can fade completely.

"If you look at those pictures, you would not know, but by then, she was disappearing rapidly at that point," McGuff said as he described his mother, Elizabeth.

At just 53, Elizabeth was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's.

"The last time I remember talking to her was at my rehearsal, when she, uh, looked at me and said, 'I'm so happy for you.' And that was the last time I talked to her really because after that really, it was gone," McGuff said.

She died at age 58.

"So very young, especially, you would never think Alzheimer's at 53. You always thought of Alzheimer's being in the elderly population, especially at that point," McGuff said.

Early-onset Alzheimer's, also now referred to as younger-onset Alzheimer's, happens when a person younger than 65 suffers from the disease.

Doctors have even seen the disease affect those as young as in their 40s. Although there still is no cure for Alzheimer's, researchers have found a common link in the disease.

Dr. Jim Ray is a researcher with MD Anderson Cancer Center and has been studying Alzheimer's for two decades.

"In terms of prevention, probably the most important thing people can do is keep their heart healthy," Ray said. "There's a connection between heart function and brain function."

He said the brains of people with Alzheimer's begin to change even 20 years before a person experiences memory loss or any other common symptoms of the disease.

"So, (a) long time before you get your first symptom, you start to get these things in your brain called plaques. And that may or may not lead you to develop Alzheimer's disease," Ray said. "There is a risk factor that we understand. It's called APO-E4, and you can get that test done. It's online genetic tests, and they'll tell you whether you have this risk factor or not."

Ray said social engagement and mental activity are crucial to the health of Alzheimer's patients.

"This is part of our memory café. It's a great conversation starter for families," Sabrina Strawn said.

Strawn is the community engagement manager with the Houston chapter of Alzheimer's Association, which provides classes and other activities for those suffering with Alzheimer's.

The association also offers support for family members who, like McGuff, had to become caregivers to their loved ones suffering from the disease.

You can find information on help and support from the Central and North Florida chapter of the Alzheimer's Association here

"Being around other people who are facing the same struggles, and it's empowering because you can also share what you've learned," Strawn said. "I was a caregiver for 10 years, and I wish that I knew then what I know now."

McGuff is now an Alzheimer's Association ambassador for the 7th Congressional District. He recently went to Washington, D.C., to meet members of Congress to work to end Alzheimer's disease.

He doesn't know if he will get early-onset Alzheimer's and doesn't want to be genetically tested to find out his risks.

In the meantime, McGuff takes statins for his cholesterol, exercises and watches his diet. He also spends every moment he can with his boys, just in case the day comes when he doesn't remember them anymore.

"I am living like it could happen. I realize if I go the same way she did, they won't really know me. Better spend as much time with them as possible so at least they have memories of me,” McGuff said somberly.