I-Team: Women, Hormones and Alzheimer’s: The Missing Link?

MIAMI (CBS4) — At 7 a.m. every morning, master Pilates instructor Nicole Perkovich leads 18 women who look like they are exercising their bodies as they kick their legs while spinning their arms and arching their backs. But this is a workout designed to protect their minds and their brains.

“Obviously the brain controls the body,” Perkovich explained.

Each day, Perkovich, a 50-year old Pilates master, teaches hundreds of South Florida women how to stave off a disease that used to be associated with “little ole ladies.” That disease is Alzheimer’s.

“There are more women being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s than men,” said Dr. Ericka Schwartz, who is one of the country’s leading experts in women’s health, hormones and fighting Alzheimer’s.

“I see women in their 30’s and 40’s being fearful. People as young as 30, 35 that I could identify as “early onset” dementia,” said Schwartz, who flew to Miami to be interviewed by Chief I-Team Reporter Michele Gillen. For months, Gillen had been investigating pioneering science that showed the face and future of Alzheimer’s, and how radically it is changing.

Former nurse and teacher Lynda Peeler was just 42-years old, when she was driving home one day, and she couldn’t remember where she was. “It was very frightening,” she told Gillen. “I thought it was a glitch.”

But more momentary “glitches” of forgetfulness, along with realizing she was short circuiting words when she typed, led her to Dr. Ranjan Duara of the Wein Center, Mt. Sinai Medical Center. As she watched him study a scan of her brain, she knew something was wrong.

“He was very kind. He hugged me,” she said recalling that moment when he discovered parts of her brain were missing.

“My right frontal lobe and temporal lobe are not there! They seemingly disappeared,” she shared.

Her diagnosis was mild cognitive impairment. Fifty percent of the time it can leads to Alzheimer’s. The news left her stunned. “I went home and really was devastated. Me? How could I have this at my age?” Peeler asked.

It’s a question Dr. Duara hears often.

“There is this puzzling finding that women seem to be at a higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s. It used to be thought it was because women lived longer than men, eight to 10-years longer. But if you look at each age group, the number of women affected keeps increasing compared to men,” he told Gillen, as they met at the Wein Center on Miami Beach.

The burning question is why?

Cutting edge research is looking at a link between Alzheimer’s and women’s hormones. In particular, the focus is on a lack of estrogen. Some studies suggest that post menopausal women who took hormone replacement therapy, “May benefit not only immediately, but also later on. They may be protected from the disease,” Duara told Gillen.

Dr Schwartz, a leading proponent of bio identical hormones said more research into estrogen and Alzheimer’s urgently needs to be done.

“How many 25-year old women do you know with Alzheimer’s? What is the difference between a 25-year old and a 50-year old? Estrogen. When you lose your estrogen you start getting sick. Why aren’t we talking about that?” asked Dr. Schwartz.

Chillingly, early indicators of dementia, such as brain fog and memory glitches, are similar to those women going through menopause. According to doctors, potential warning signs should trigger a change in lifestyle. First, start reducing stress.

“Any form of stress seems to increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s,” said Dr. Duara, who added that depression is also linked to Alzheimer’s. He said studies need to look further into whether depression is a risk factor, as well as a sign of Alzheimer’s.

“I changed my life and dramatically reduced my stress,” said a smiling Peeler. “I have created a whole new life.”

Peeler no longer works 16-hour days. She is now a holistic healer and she ends each day with meditation and does not cheat on sleep.

“If you can’t sleep or don’t sleep seven to eight hours as you get older, you actually increase the incidence of dementia,” Dr. Schwartz stressed.

Schwartz added, “What is shocking is that in 2011 we are still not doing the research we need to do. What is important is how to understand how to protect ourselves and how to potentially prevent disease from robbing us of our lives.”

All of this is tied into our hormones and leads Lynda back to moving the body. Physical exercise is considered the best defense against Alzheimer’s and to keep the mind young and healthy.

“I am fighting back. I am not going to let this get me,” a radiant Peeler said as she looks forward to tomorrow and refuses to fear it.

More from Michele Gillen
  • Daniela Mercuri

    Thank you once again Michelle for keeping us informed on a disease that is affecting too many woman.
    In all your stories we feel that you really care for each and everyone.
    This is an incredible piece of information that every woman out there needs to know.

  • Paco Capella

    My Mom have Alzheimer’s. Thanks for sharing.

  • wr81

    interesting claims, especially since estrogen INCREASES the risk of dementia! high estradiol levels in older men and women are associated with decreased brain tissue volume and more vascular dementia and alzheimer’s. and estrogen THERAPY shrinks the brain’s frontal lobe and hippocampus.

  • susan

    My 60-year old sister has been “hooked” on bio identical hormone replacement therapy for six years. She has exhibited alarmingly decreased cognitive ability in the last two years. I have read studies that support wr81’s statements and would like to hear from others who have observed early dementia signs in thier family and with friends who are on HRT. Thanks.

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