Worrying about Alzheimer’s? Don’t.
Last week I gave a short talk on dementia.
The church was set back from boisterous Detroit Road. In a sunlit, spacious room, home-made dishes packed two tables. The air was casual, familiar, coffee-warm. In the snow-capped meditation garden, I spotted half a dozen wild turkeys.
In my Sunday best, I was smart, gracious, gregarious and blissfully forgot an important message.
Here’s my talk, again, turkeys and punchline included.
Dementia is an umbrella term when the brain doesn’t work right. Sometimes it’s reversible, if caused by depression, thyroid diseases, alcohol or drugs. Others, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, are irreversible. Alzheimer’s is the most common diagnosis.
To date, doctors don’t know what causes Alzheimer’s. Genetics plays a minor role. It’s likely several things are going wrong.
What do doctors know about Alzheimer’s? The classic finding is a tangle of deformed proteins in and around the brain cells. But not everybody with tangled proteins has dementia. Also, a recent study showed half of Alzheimer’s patients have signs of vascular damage, like small strokes.
Doctors diagnose it based on typical symptoms, not by blood tests or imaging studies. The most prominent symptom is loss of short-term memory.
So how do I know if I have age-appropriate memory loss or Alzheimer’s?
I forget my neighbor’s name (but not the dog’s) or the major point of my talk, but I remember them later.
In Alzheimer’s, I’d keep asking the same question again and again. Dependent on people to remind me. Also a loss of motivation, confusion, poor judgement.
Four FDA-approved drugs can temper Alzheimer’s symptoms (cognition and anxiety) – donepezil, rivastigmine, galantamine and memantine. But it’s temporary. Rule of thumb, they work for half the takers for about half a year to a year. Then the deterioration resumes.
No drugs or intervention has been proven to prevent, slow or stop Alzheimer’s.
My message: Don’t worry about things you can’t control. With the same breath, I urge you to embrace the best-science-supported (not solidly proven), brain-friendly lifestyle – exercise, eat well, stay curious, socialize.
In my “brain reserve theory,” I envision the brain as a jar of marbles. Aging, pollution, smoking, social isolation take marbles out. Hiking, book clubs, pottery classes put marbles in. The fuller my jar, the better my odds of delaying dementia.
Tom, who invited me to the talk, has his own theory. He reckons each swim practice earns him a day of healthful life; he’s accumulated four healthy years since he started swimming as an adult.
At the end, I wasn’t ready for the followup questions. Keto diet; vegan diet; stem cells; heavy metal testing; depression; a robust debate on brain fuel, fat or glucose. I didn’t know the answers to some.
I also didn’t know that wild turkeys roam Westlake. I learned that a group of turkeys is called a “rafter.” Apparently collective nouns date back to medieval times. A “destruction” of wild cats. A “murder” of crows. A “mob” of kangaroos. A “convocation” of eagles.
My brain exercise for the day. Check.