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At 34, a father thinks over his future with Alzheimer's

by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: December 15, 2013

Michelle Whitney knew in her heart that her husband would be OK.

The doctors would take his blood, run the genetic tests and tell Brent Whitney that his future didn't hold the same demise that his father met.

Her heart was wrong.

“I'd like to think for me and Brent being a younger couple, we will be together forever,” Michelle said. “It's just that forever isn't going to last as long as we'd like it to.”

Like his father, Brent Whitney has a gene mutation that almost guarantees he will develop early-onset Alzheimer's.

Doctors say Brent will likely develop the disease around the same time his dad did — at 48 or 50. Brent is 34.

Running through generations

Growing up in Grove, Brent's parents never really talked about Alzheimer's. The only thing he remembers is his mother telling him that the disease ran in the family, and that their relatives thought it “skipped generations.”

“So, it's either going to skip Dad's generation, or it's going to skip your generation,” she told Brent.

Neither happened.

The gene mutation — N141I — plagues Brent's family. His grandmother carried the same gene mutation and died at 55 from early-onset Alzheimer's. Nine of her 14 siblings met the same fate.

Among his grandmother and her siblings' 36 children, 25 are at risk for carrying the gene mutation. So far, five of those children, including Brent's dad, have died in their 50s and 60s.

Brent is one of 87 grandchildren, 44 of whom are at risk. Brent is one of the few who have had genetic testing.

Several of his family members are involved in research known as the Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer Network, an international partnership of scientists. They're researching a rare form of Alzheimer's that's caused by gene mutation.

Dr. Randall Bateman, a researcher with the DIAN study, said they're researching people like Brent because of how likely they are to develop Alzheimer's. It enables scientists to better understand what happens earlier in the disease.

At one point, a doctor told Brent he had a 97 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's. Brent jokes that's because the doctor didn't want to tell him 100 percent.

But Bateman said there are a few reasons that doctors steer away from saying that Alzheimer's is an absolute for people like Brent.

“Occasionally, depending on the mutation and who has it, there have been reports in the literature of people who have apparently had a mutation and didn't develop the disease,” he said. “Those are quite rare.”

‘Is the disease here now?'

After Brent joined the DIAN study, he pursued genetic testing to find out whether he carried the gene mutation.

Continue reading this story on the...

by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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