Twin Cities woman raises awareness of mild cognitive impairment

Kanada Yazbek lives with a condition that too few people know about and even fewer understand.

“It’s one hundred percent lethal,” Yazbek said. “Of course it’s scary.”

He was diagnosed with a degenerative brain condition called mild cognitive impairment, or MCI. It is a condition that affects memory, thought and language, but has not yet reached the level of severe brain cognition that becomes Alzheimer’s disease.

“For me, it’s kind of the start of a long journey,” Yazbek said.

For people with MCI, the disturbances are much more than short-term memory loss or episodes of what many call a “senior moment.”

“An important distinction is that this is not normal aging,” said Lisa Groon of the Alzheimer’s Association. She explains that we all become forgetful as we age. Sometimes we forget where we put our car keys. But Groon says people with MCI forget what the keys are for.

Yazbek had a similar episode. “Shortly before my 40th birthday, I was washing my hair,” she recalls. Yazbek knew her hair would be clean once the process was complete, but she had a big problem. “My brain couldn’t process the literal stops to wash my hair,” she said.

“And those are real things that people need to see their primary care provider about,” Croon said.

Yazbek was very familiar with the symptoms of memory loss. She has a long history of Alzheimer’s in her family, her great-grandmother, grandmother and all of her grandmother’s siblings died of Alzheimer’s disease. She knew the episode of not remembering how to wash her hair was something she needed to ask for help. She ended up seeing neurologist Michael Rosenbloom at HealthPartners.

“Now, in the clinic, we can actually distinguish normal aging from mild cognitive impairment by administering a four-hour neuropsychological battery,” Dr. Rosenbloom explained. “This is a learning test of memory, language executive function, which relates to multitasking, decision making and retention of information in the head.”

Yazbek went for a baseline test at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, then returned for a follow-up test a year later to measure any kind of deterioration. She was diagnosed with MCI near her 41st birthday.

“Mild cognitive impairment is extremely rare in the 40-year-old and early 50-year-old population,” Dr. Rosenbloom explained. Much of the data on MCI relates to patients 60 years of age and older. But researchers know that the brain plaques and tangles that lead to Alzheimer’s disease begin to form when people are in their 40s.

“But then the brain is able to compensate,” Dr. Rosenbloom said. “And so 20 to 30 years later, this patient may present to his doctor with memory symptoms, but he’s still able to do instrumental activities of daily living. That’s mild cognitive impairment.”

Over time, when the person can no longer perform these daily instrumental activities, that is when the memory deterioration becomes Alzheimer’s dementia.

In some cases, the MCI can be managed or reduced. Lisa Groon of the Alzheimer’s Association says one example involves trouble sleeping. “There have been times when a patient comes in and is diagnosed with sleep apnea, gets the treatment that is needed, and in the months that follow, they think much more clearly. Their cognition is clearer,” Groon said.

“There’s quite a bit of literature on the importance of lifestyle,” Dr. Rosenbloom said. Physical activity, diet and socializing have been shown to make a difference. “The risk of MCI converting to dementia is reduced,” said Dr Rosenbloom of the research.

Yazbek says knowing his diagnosis and condition is good because it helps him plan his life.

“I want people to know that life can be OK,” she said. “Life is Beautiful.”

But Yazbek knows there may be a time when she can no longer do her business development work for a mortgage company as well as teaching and training new real estate agents. That’s why she’s already started a commercial cleaning business as a side business when it comes time to get away from the pressures of the housing finance industry. She donates ten percent of the company’s proceeds to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Yazbek also has a positive attitude. She frequently tags her social media posts with #IHaveItNotItMe.

“I will continue to be the person I want to be,” Yazbek said. “I’m just going to keep talking about it and not let it control my life.”

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