Why I Walk to End Alzheimer’s

My grandmother holding my mom in 1937

My grandmother visited me for a week in 1996 when she had moderate dementia.  To ease the burden of having one caregiver, my grandma traveled between her three children’s homes and would stay for up to four months at a time at each place.  My home was a stop-over one year as she went from my uncle’s home to my mother’s.  I was glad to have her with me, and in my hurried life with little ones, it was nice to slow down and be with grandma in her world for just a bit.

I adored my grandmother who died in 1999 with advanced dementia.  But do you know what I remember the most from her visit?  I remember her asking the same questions over and over, and me repeating the same answers over and over.  I wasn’t prepared.  She didn’t know where she was or who I was.  And whoever I was, I had some of her things that I needed to give back to her!  Talk about a crash course in dementia.  To go from the grandma who used to love on me and call me her “little dumpling” to not knowing me at all was tough — shocking even.

I didn’t know at the time that my dear grandmother would be practice for what lay ahead.

Mom and I in 2010 enjoying a day at a park, right around the time her disease went from bad to worse. This would be her last visit to my home.

Fast forward to 2005.  I am with my mother in the kitchen and she doesn’t know what to do or how to help.  She is lost and seems to find comfort staying at the sink and washing dishes.  She is clearly overwhelmed, and this is the moment when I knew.  She is 68 and slipping away so incrementally it’s almost impossible to see — but I see it here in her face, at the sink in the kitchen.

In 2008 mom can no longer pay bills or make a phone call, and caring for her home has slipped through her fingers like the hair she no longer combs.  Eventually, the names of mom’s friends, children, grandchildren, and even her own name, are gone.  Mom could hardly communicate at the end, long after she lost the ability to do most everything else.

Mom died this year at the age of 75.  Her Death Certificate lists “Alzheimer’s Dementia” as her cause of death, which I’m grateful for in this under-reported disease.

I walk for those who are already gone.  I walk for the more than 5 million Americans who don’t know who they are or who you are, and for their families who love them.  I walk for the 15 million caregivers in this country who are too overwhelmed and exhausted to walk.  I walk for the billions of dollars needed to make the National Alzheimer’s Plan an ACTION plan.  I walk for my children, and my future grandchildren.  I walk for my grandmother, my mom, and for me.

I walk to be seen and heard and I walk because I HOPE.

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It’s not too late to register to walk or to donate.  Go to the Winchester – Shenandoah Valley Walk to End Alzheimer’s to join my team and/or make a donation.  Look for Racing Alzheimer’s.  Get more information HERE.

You can also go to alz.org to donate and/or find a walk near you.

So I’ve Been “Running”

When I began Racing Alzheimer’s, my intent was to share the latest research on how to be healthy so that you and I could hopefully avoid or delay dementia down the road.

I haven’t been very good at this.

With my mother moving into late stage dementia, this blog became more about racing her Alzheimer’s by helping her and being with her as much as I could.  Still, as I focused on my mom, I didn’t lose sight of the need to be healthy.  My “prevention intention” was never far away as I watched the progression of this disease in my mom.  Talk about motivation.

While there are no guarantees or proven ways to prevent dementia, there is nothing to lose and so much to gain for trying.  There are a number of ways to keep our brains healthy that are supported by solid research — and exercise is one.

So I’ve been “running.”

If you’ve followed my running posts you’ll know I am not a runner.  Uh, because running is hard?  Truth is, all exercise is hard for me — I just don’t like it.  But of everything I’ve tried, I enjoy running the most which is to say I hardly enjoy it at all.  It’s tolerable.  I’m not very good at it which is why I’ve been running so slowly it can hardly be called “running.”  Oxygen deprived lumbering is a better description.

So why do it?  Because study after study suggests exercise as an important way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.  One Mayo Clinic study found:

Older adults who regularly engaged in moderate exercise five or six times a week reduced their risk of mild cognitive impairment by 32 percent compared with more sedentary people. Those who began exercising at midlife saw a 39 percent reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment.

Mayo Clinic goes on to say, “It’s not clear how exercise protects the brain from Alzheimer’s, but research indicates several possibilities, including:”  1) increased brain volume, 2) improvement in brain connections, and 3) improved blood vessel health.   In addition, Harvard Professor John Ratey, M.D. says exercise is “Miracle-Gro for the brain” and the “single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function.”

It’s kind of hard to say no to that.

I’ve been lumbering and training for a 10 mile race in October.  The Twin Cities 10 Mile is something I’ve wanted to do since I started lumbering in 2011.  It’s by lottery and I wasn’t selected last year.  So you can imagine my surprise when, barely able to run 2 miles, I found out I got in this year!   Yay!!?   After I settled down and let go of my fear, determination set in — and I started training.

I’m up to 8 miles now and my knees would like me to stop.

As grueling as the training has been, I’m thrilled to be running this race in my hometown, in my 50th year — the year my mother succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease.  I’ll run for my mom, and for me and for all my aging brain cells.   My son will be running the Twin Cities Marathon at the same time — 16.2 miles farther than me, and I’d like to think I can finish before him.

I’ll share other ways I’m Racing Alzheimer’s down the road, but for now, it’s all about the lumbering, and my knees, and my brain cells, while b r e a t h i n g, and taking one step at a time.

With Abundant Gratitude,

     ~  Joanne

Sweaty Sweethearts In The Huffington Post

A few weeks ago, Huffington Post sent a shout out for photos of couples exercising together.  So of course I obliged and sent in a picture of Vince and I before we ran the Shenandoah Apple Blossom 10K last May.

Here’s the HP article titled, “The Perfect Workout Partner: Why Couples Who Sweat Together Stay Together.”

Once you get through all the icky stuff about passion and blood flow, you’ll find Vince and I in the 9th photo.

Do you exercise with your partner and do you agree with the article?

I sent HP a nice, sweat-free pre-race photo, but I think this sweaty post-race pic tells a better story.

Middle-aged, Out of Shape, Incredibly Lazy Woman Begins Exercise Program

'Runners set records in 25th Army Ten-Miler 091005' photo (c) 2009, U.S. Army - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/When I decided to start running in 2011 it seemed like a crazy idea.  If you read “I Am Not a Runner,” you will know what I mean.  But a personal commitment to exercise had recently become a nagging whisper in my daily life, sounding something like “you need to exercise . . . you need to get healthy  . . . you need to mooove before you CAN’T MOVE ANYMORE!”

Oh sure, I tried to be a serious “power walker” (I could do that!), but I still wasn’t really moooving in that out of breath way that indicated I was working hard.  Then I read an article written by Oprah’s fitness trainer, Bob Greene, outlining “10 Reasons to Exercise,” where he suggested finding just one reason out of the ten that he offered to motivate me enough to do it.

And so I did.   I exercise for my brain.

Many of you know my story by now of the three generations of women before me with dementia.  You know that my mother is in the advanced stages of the disease, and that I would do pretty much anything to avoid this fate myself.  So when I found out that exercise slows the aging process, reduces cognitive decline and helps preserve memory, my lazy days were over — I didn’t have a choice, I would be a lazy fool if I didn’t exercise.

The idea of exercising for my brain has been helpful.  It’s been motivating because it feels just a tad more important than exercising for my butt or my thighs.   According to Mr. Greene, some other important reasons to exercise are:

1.  Fight disease                              6.  Alleviate joint pain

2.  Lose weight                                7.  Ease back pain

3.  Look better                                 8.  Improve sleep

4.  Gain energy                                9.  Fight aging

5.  Less illness                                10.  Love your kids

Bob Greene goes on to say,

Exercise is one of the most effective ways to fight aging. Regular workouts drastically reduce the loss of muscle and bone, and improve circulation. Exercise may also help reduce inflammation and stave off age-related diseases. As if that’s not enough, physical activity seems to have a protective effect against dementia, and may help improve memory and other cognitive functions. One Harvard University researcher called exercise “Miracle-Gro for the brain.”

Miracle-Gro for the brain?  Yes please!

I like Bob Greene’s easy to understand article on the 10 Reasons To Exercise, but if you want something a little meatier that offers scientific research indicating the benefits of exercise on the brain, you can go to this New York Times article or this Time Health & Family article.

Finally, I want you to know that exercising is quite often difficult for this middle-aged, out of shape, incredibly lazy woman.  I’m on again, off again and I still struggle to get to that place where exercise is a natural part of my daily life.  (In fact, I’m procrastinating right now!)  But I am motivated and determined to do the right thing for my body and my brain, by answering the whispers, and moooving!

Besides, it only sucks half the time, and the other half it doesn’t.

6 Reasons I Joined A Gym

I joined a gym! 

My feelings about this are somewhere between excited and terrified, but I’m looking forward to getting started.  I never considered myself an “exerciser” until 2011 when I began running and working out on a somewhat regular basis.  I got into it pretty quickly and found myself exercising four to five days a week which was unheard of for me — I felt great, went down a pant size, was signing up for 5Ks and a 10K — and then  . . .  I  . . . gradually . . .  stopped.  Well, almost stopped.  I still ran a little here and there, did sporadic floor exercises, “push-ups” on the stairs, squats while blow drying my hair, but it was all going to hell and my motivation was waning.

So I decided to join a gym.  Here’s why:

1.  Motivation.  I need to be where other people are working out.  It’s tough to stay motivated when I’m doing it alone.

2.  Weights.  After receiving poor results on a recent bone density scan, I have no choice but to begin strength training.

3.  Classes.  Yoga, Zumba, Cycle, Pilates, Boot Camp!

4.  The big 5-0.  I’m turning 50 this year.  Aaaaagh!  When? How? Must turn back time!

5.  Cost.  It’s crazy inexpensive right now at Gold’s Gym.  Maybe they have good deals where you live?

6.  Alzheimer’s Prevention!  Exercise and pumping iron are two of the best things I can do for my brain.  It’s a no-brainer. ; )

Also, see me in that batting cage?  It was a lot of fun, and it brought back memories of my softball days, but that was on Dec. 26th, two weeks ago, and I am STILL in pain.  I am so dog-gone weak that I have virtually no upper body strength, and I’m still paying for my batting fun.

I am weak.  I want to get strong.  That’s why I joined a gym.

10 Reasons I’m Grateful for Alzheimer’s Disease

All that we behold is full of blessings.    ~  William Wordsworth

Yesterdays post about Alzheimer’s disease killing my mom was honest.  It wasn’t meant to be anything other than that.   I have experienced many emotions throughout the course of my mom’s disease.  I’ve been sad, frustrated, joyful, embarrassed, protective, impatient, scared and yes angry.  But I’ve also been grateful.  And of all the emotional ups and downs this disease brings — gratefulness is my gift and comfort to myself.

My mother is still on this earth, she is in good hands, and I get to tell her everything in my heart over and over again.

Yes, I am grateful for Alzheimer’s disease.

Because of Alzheimer’s . . . .

  1. My mom is free from the worries of the world and is generally happy.
  2. I am closer with my parents because I am more involved in their lives.
  3. I am also closer with my brother and sister who are my partners on this journey.
  4. I have a pretty good idea of how and when my mother will die — it’s a gift in disguise.
  5. I appreciate and treasure every moment I have with my mom, and those I love.
  6. I know how and why to strive for fitness and health — including brain health.
  7. I’m healthier than I’ve ever been.
  8. I see the fragility of life, and I try not to take things for granted.
  9. I’m trying to live with intention and mindfulness.
  10. I have a good reason to run!

We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are
conscious of our treasures.
      ~  Thornton Wilder

“Someday” At My Door!

Joanne stretching her quads while leaning on a treeI’ve done the impossible by running (and finishing without puking) my first 5K in August 2011. I’ve run a handful of organized 5Ks since then and a “5 miler” in January. But I’ll be honest, I’ve been running just enough to keep my momentum, but not enough to improve. Until lately.

I’m training for a 10K in May!

Running the annual 10K where I live has been a whisper of an idea for about 10 years. I’ve watched family and friends run it while having that “someday” mentality for myself.

Well darlin’ — (knock knock) SOMEDAY IS HERE!

Hello SOMEDAY. Say hello to my little friend, Hal Higdon.

For those of you who don’t know, Hal Higdon is the go-to guy when training for your run. My son turned me on to him a few months ago and Hal has been with me everyday since I’ve been training. I selected the 10K Training Guide – Novice Program since I’m clearly not ready for the Intermediate Program and the Advanced training looks like it’s meant for someone who wants to win the darn thing.

The Novice Program is six days a week of cardio and strength training for 8-weeks. I’m in my 6th week, and at 49, I have never worked out this hard or often in my life. I finally understand what a runners high is as well as needing to get my workout in and I FEEL GREAT!

Thank you Hal Higdon.

Hello SOMEDAY!

*Note — this post was written 2 weeks ago while my website was under construction.  The 10K is on May 5th, 3 days away from this posting!

5K (Half Ass) Training cont’d

exhausted male runner with his head in a large bucket of waterYou would think going from 2 miles to 3 miles would be easy enough. It’s not. It’s almost like starting over. It’s how I felt going from 0 to 1 mile. The wall is hit, my body is done. Even as I write this, I’m feeling a little embarrassed because I’m still talking about RUNNING ONLY 3 MILES!

Sheesh! How hard can it be?!

I used to think that everyone could run 3 miles, except me. Kind of like the way I think everyone knows their times tables through the twelves except me. I mean, I know them, but I need extra time with the middle 8’s and 9’s because I was probably daydreaming about Shaun Cassidy that week in 4th grade, and I’ve struggled with them ever since.  I’ve come to find out that not everyone can run 3 miles. Why? Because it friggin far! Don’t believe me? Set your odometer the next time you’re in the car. Find a landmark, and start counting.

Now imagine running that!

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m cutting myself a break lately. The idea that I “should” be able to run 3 miles has changed to, “Holy shit this is hard! If I can do this, I can do just about anything!”

So yeah, I’m doing my half ass training and 2.5 miles feels like my first mile.
3.1 is in sight, the only question is will I finish ugly or strong?