Brian LeBlanc has been open about his life with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, since his diagnosis about five years ago. At that point, he was just 54 years old, but by then, he had already suffered three heart attacks. He’s now recovering from triple bypass surgery.
In this next installment of WUWF’s series on LeBlanc’s journey with Alzheimer’s, we’ll check to see how he’s doing and we’ll explore how his heart health has affected his brain health.
LeBlanc had triple bypass heart surgery in late June at Sacred Heart Hospital. He’s now in his fifth week of recovery and getting better every day.
“I’m doing really, really well and feeling very well, especially when it comes to the brain department,” said LeBlanc.
“Last week, I went to my surgeon and my cardiologist and they both have released me to where I can you know proceed with things that I did before, within reason. You know, I’m not going to be running up flights of stairs or anything.”
But, LeBlanc says he’s walking every day and he’s been cleared to travel, which is important to his Alzheimer’s Advocacy.
LeBlanc was actually on the road attending a Dementia Action Alliance conference in Atlanta, when he started experiencing symptoms. Combined with shortness of breath, he felt an increasing pressure in his chest and pain in his upper back.
“I got back from Atlanta on Sunday. I went to see my cardiologist on Monday. They did an echocardiogram, which showed fine. But, then they did an angioplasty, which showed that I had severe blockages in three of my arteries,” LeBlanc chronicled. “The very next day, Tuesday, I was lying on the operating table having a triple bypass.”
Similar to when he first learned of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, LeBlanc wasn’t totally caught off guard when informed he needed bypass surgery. He had already experienced three heart attacks and has an extensive family history of heart disease.
“My grandfather had a triple bypass,” began LeBlanc. “My father had a quintuple bypass. My brother, that’s the oldest brother, he had a triple bypass. And, the brother that’s two years older than me, he recently, just about three months before me, he had a triple bypass. So, heart disease did run rampant in our family”
Now, in addition to Alzheimer’s disease, LeBlanc’s doctors gave him a diagnosis of Vascular Dementia.
“Vascular dementia is one of the variety of types of dementia. In this case, it’s caused by vascular changes in the brain, said Dr. Rodney Guttmann, professor of biology in the University of West Florida Hal Marcus College of Science and Engineering.
Dr. Guttmann has conducted extensive research on Alzheimer’s disease and neurodegeneration.
He says the vascular changes — that result in vascular dementia — are most often associated with things like stroke or mini strokes, known as transient ischemic attacks (TIAs).
“The reason it causes dementia is that the brain obviously relies on oxygen to come in and glucose, which is its energy,” explained Guttmann.
“The blood provides the means by which oxygen and glucose get to the brain. So, anything that inhibits the ability of your brain to receive the nutrients that it needs or to get rid of the waste products is going to contribute to poor neuronal function, and that is going to result in changes in cognition just like we see in Alzheimer’s disease.”
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia that over time has a worsening effect on memory, language, and thought. Vascular Dementia is another common the second most common, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Dr. Guttmann says not everyone with vascular dementia has Alzheimer’s disease, and vice versa, but many of the risk factors tend to overlap and not surprisingly, Brian LeBlanc checks many of those boxes.
“Having heart disease is a risk factor for developing vascular dementia, but it’s also a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease,” said Guttmann. “In his particular case, he’s (LeBlanc) had a family history of heart disease, diabetes and other health issues, and, of course, that elevated his individual risk of developing dementia. It seems as though he’s got a combination of things going on; a combination of vascular related dementia, issues related to dementia, so a vascular dementia as well as Alzheimer’s disease.”
A little over a month post triple bypass surgery, LeBlanc reiterates that he’s feeling good, and believes his brain is functioning better, too.
“I still forget, but I don’t think that I forget as much as I used to,” proclaimed LeBlanc. “I think having the additional oxygen and blood flow going to the brain has really helped in my day to day activities.”
“I think that makes sense,” responded Guttmann. “You know, he’s getting the oxygen and glucose, and all the things that his brain needs, so it’s not totally surprising that he’s doing better and he may very well be doing better.”
Guttmann says an important take away from this open and public discussion of LeBlanc’s heart troubles is the awareness that a healthier cardiovascular system typically means a healthier body and brain, and reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s.
“Everything we do to keep our heart pumping and getting the oxygen and everything to our brain and getting rid of the waste products is going to benefit us,” Guttmann said. “So, take care of your heart, which will help take care of your head.”
Individuals can get on the road to good heart (and brain) health by walking a minimum of 3,000 steps a day, although more is better.
By the way, anyone experiencing symptoms of a heart attack should go to the closest hospital/emergency room.
And, since Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t usually occur in isolation of other health issues, Dr. Guttmann recommends a specific evaluation for that with an appropriate neurology specialist.