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LEEZA GIBBONS: Easing the Burden of Alzheimer's Disease

Susman, Ed

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Ed Susman is a book author as well as a freelance science and health writer. His articles appear in The Los Angeles Times and in many other publications, as well as on WebMD, Medscape and MedPageToday.com.

LEEZA GIBBONS was in denial. She refused to recognize that first her grandmother, and now, her mother were losing their battle against Alzheimer's disease (AD).

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“No one wants to look at what might be inevitable,” says Gibbons. “Our family — like most families — had blinders on. We were just content to say to ourselves, ‘Granny is losing it.’” What Gibbons didn't want to come to grips with was that not only was Granny ‘losing it’ but that she would not get it back.

All the success in the world had not prepared her for this. When Gibbons was only in her 20s, she became a nationally known television anchor and reporter on “Entertainment Tonight.” She parlayed her “ET” success into a daily talk show, “Leeza,” radio talk shows, syndicated television shows, three Emmy Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But it was in her 30s that she realized something might be wrong with her grandmother.

“Granny liked to make biscuits,” Gibbons said. “We always loved that she made these ‘little brown jugs’ as she called them, and she would stick her thumb in the dough where we could pour the syrup. We lived for those biscuits. I remember being there once and she went to take the biscuits out of the oven and she could not find them. We found them in her bedroom.”

“I had that awful ‘gulp’ feeling but it quickly passed and I just dismissed it,” Gibbons said. “I thought, ‘she's tired. She has a lot on her mind.” When her grandmother would retell the same story, Gibbons dismissed any concern about that as well. “I thought she was just repeating her favorite stories, and that was kind of endearing. It wasn't until much later that we knew that her brain had been affected by AD.”

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A Different Mother than Before

Less than 10 years later, about the same time as her grandmother's death from Alzheimer's disease, Gibbons noticed a change in her mother, Jean. “She would come and visit the kids, but she was not as affectionate as she used to be. She wasn't as energetic. I took her for lunch, and, as I was paying the bill, she got into the wrong car. I was driving a convertible and she got into another convertible. ‘That's understandable,’ I thought. I could find a reason for almost everything,”

Still, Gibbons was finding it much harder to remain in denial.

“My mom's personality changed. She had been outgoing, sociable and full of life. She became nervous in crowds. She didn't enjoy social gatherings anymore; she pulled at her hair, wrung her hands and stood off in the corner. This was not my mom.”

Numerous trips to various doctors finally resulted in the diagnosis of AD in 1999, when her mother was 63. “That is young for Alzheimer's disease,” Gibbons says. “My mother sustained a head injury in a car crash. I think that was the beginning. I don't think we really got her out of that. She was 58 at that time.”

But, instead of being disheartened by her diagnosis of AD, Jean Gibbons seemed relieved, her daughter says.

“Once we put a name to what was wrong with her, it freed her. She felt she could go out with her girlfriends and not be concerned about repeating herself or doing something inappropriate; she knew that her friends were there for her,” Gibbons says.

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The Impact on a Family

But Gibbons had to step in to find some relief for her father, Carlos, who has been married to her mother for over 50 years.

“My mother was a remarkably strong woman who was the CEO of her family. She paid the bills, ran the household, did the cooking and made the appointments.” Suddenly, her father had to reshape his life to handle those activities — while grieving for his wife, whose life was disappearing in front of his eyes.

Jean's illness also transformed her daughter's mission in life. After obtaining her mother's permission to talk about her disease, Gibbons established the Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation for people with AD and memory disorders in 2002. For her tireless work in spreading awareness about AD, the American Academy of Neurology Foundation awarded her the Public Leadership in Neurology Award in April.

At press time, Jean Gibbons is still alive, but, says her daughter, she is beyond the point when there are any momentary rebounds of lucidity. “The ‘little kisses from the angels’ that she would give me are gone,” Gibbons says. Earlier this year, she continues, “I went to say goodbye to her. I don't know if it was my need to do it or something more than that. But as I held her hand, she looked deeply into my eyes. I told her what her love and energy had done to transform our family, and to help other families, and I let her know that we are fine.”

At 48, Gibbons is as vibrant today as she was when she first started her career. She's also raising three children — daughter Lexi, 15, and sons Troy, 13, and Nathan, 7. She hosts a nationally syndicated radio program, “Hollywood Confidential,” and Lifetime television's primetime magazine, “What Should You Do?” a dramatic reality series about life-saving information in times of crisis.

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The Best Antidote: A Healthy Lifestyle

With a grandmother who died of AD and a mother who is in the final stages of the disease, Gibbons knows that she may have inherited it as well. She does what she can to prevent AD in herself, including eating a healthy diet, using supplements and exercising. “I try to oxygenate my brain with plenty of exercise. I try to reduce stress. I follow an anti-inflammation diet,” she says. “I eat a lot of oily fish, especially salmon, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acid. I eat lots of apples, red onions, blueberries, walnuts and almonds. I sprinkle flax and pumpkin seeds on eggs and salads and use lots of ginger and tumeric in my cooking. I also keep my brain mentally active. I take dance classes so I can learn something new every day.”

Gibbons also regularly takes the memory screening test provided on her Web site (www.leezasplace.org). “Beyond that I have not done any genetic screening. It doesn't mean that I won't. I take it very seriously when my children ask me if I am going to get AD. I tell them, ‘I don't know if Mommy is going to get it or not. What I do know is that I am doing everything I possibly can to keep that from happening.”

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FOR MORE INFORMATION

American Academy of Neurology Foundation

The Brain Matters

www.thebrainmatters.org

Alzheimer's Association

(800) 272-3900

www.alz.org

Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Service

e-mail: adear@alzheimer's.org

www.alzheimers.org

©2005 American Academy of Neurology

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