Calling all Chastains

Family tree could be key to Alzheimer’s cure

Atlanta – Alzheimer’s disease is the most prominent cause of death that has no known treatment to stop it. One family with mountain roots is hoping to help change that.

Emory University researchers have been working on a large-scale project for years centered around the Chastain family, a clan that stretches back to a French colonist named Pierre Chastain, who settled in Virginia around 1700. The family line has expanded over the last three centuries, spreading descendants all over the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee, and beyond.

Terri Chastain Walters, whose great-grandparents settled in Cherokee County, N.C., has been trying to get any members of her family from the region to an informational session at Martins Creek Community Center from 1-3 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30.

The luncheon will provide information for Chastain family members about the research, risks and what they can do to help. They’ll be provided with free and optional avenues by which to participate in the medical study.

“It’s important for the research that we find as many family members as possible,” Walters said. “The more information they can gather, the more they can piece together the genetic sequence.”

The study has centered around a major susceptibility gene variant for Alzheimer’s called ApoE4 that is common among members of this family tree.

Neurogeneticist Dr. Thomas Wingo and lead researcher Dr. Allen Levey are in charge of the massive study, which has catalogued records from no fewer than 500 members of the Chastain family with hopes of learning something that can help combat the disease. The doctors think secrets that could lead to an eventual cure could be unlocked by something in their blood.

Walters’ grandfather, Grover Chastain, also grew up in Cherokee County and died from the disease in 2000. She said her father, Derrell Chastain, has a 50 percent chance of developing the disease, which in turn increases her chances.

“It’s scary to think – is this what I have to look forward to?” said the 43-year-old Walters, who lives in Jasper.

To try and do all she can to avoid that fate for herself and her kin, Walters has been to myriad seminars and information sessions about this study of her family, the largest one in America to have this predisposition.

“It is hard to believe this, but everything I have sat through and listened to tells me this research really could one day lead to a cure,” she said.

Levey said in an Emory medical journal that the disease has a devastating societal impact and is a major threat to the global economy.

“Years ago, when people didn’t live past an average lifespan of 50 or 60 years, it wasn’t a problem,” Levey said. “The likelihood of Alzheimer’s starts doubling every year as people get older. It turns out 40 to 50 percent of those past the age of 85 have Alzheimer’s. More people are living that long. Currently, over 5 million Americans are affected, and that number will grow.”

Mildred “Lily” Chastain Lowman of Ellijay went to Emory almost 10 years ago after she began showing signs of dementia. Levey discovered at that time that nine members of the previous generation suffered similar symptoms, and the study has grown from there.

Lily died in 2008, prompting her daughters to help push this cause and find as many family members as possible. Walters has done the same.

For details on the informational session in Martins Creek on Sept. 30, call Walters at 770-878-1992 or email twltrs@gmail.com. For questions on how to get involved in the research, contact Cecelia Manzanares at 404-727-9324 or email cmanzan@emory.edu.

Times Courier

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