Updated: Apr 29, 2018
Fifteen years ago, my wife's mom effortlessly kept track of her huge extended family. With multiple siblings of her own, eight children, their kids, and a growing clutch of great-grandchildren--as well as everyone's job and daily drama--there was a lot to remember.
Grandma had double hip replacement surgery in her early 80's, and never really bounced back. She began using a walker, and spent most days in her favorite chair. After her husband of almost 60 years passed away, she became even less mobile--and started forgetting things. She would neglect eating. Faces, names and relationships began to fade.
She went through a few months of home care, mostly watching TV and eating canned or processed food. She forgot more and more, and my wife's regular phone calls with her got harder each week.
By the time she moved into assisted living, we accepted that she might stop recognizing us and completely slip away.
Good food, exercise, and community to the rescue
We live out of state, and only see Grandma every few months. She had been in the facility for almost 10 months by the time we all got together for her 90th birthday. Our previous visit (to her home) was sobering--she was gaunt, forgetful and completely housebound. I was ready for a fairly grim event.
But what a surprise! Grandma looked filled out and healthy, with color in her cheeks and great skin tone. She recognized everybody, engaged in her beloved Scrabble games with gusto, and moved easily around the facility with a new, hot-rod style walker.
Conversation flowed smoothly, and she introduced us to new acquaintances. At 90 she was "back in her body", and in better shape than in several previous years.
The facility's regular, ultra-low impact exercise regimen, along with regular balanced meals (including at least some fresh food and vegetables) and the mental stimulation of communal living, had actually improved her memory and cognition.
We saw it for ourselves.
Retirees: don't wait for your 90th birthday to get this right
If a few months of better diet and exercise at age 90 can visibly improve mental acuity (and life quality), what does that teach us 50- and 60-somethings?
Why wait that long to make changes that could help us minimize the the chances of Alzheimer's and other cognitive issues?
These conditions can shorten life, reduce the quality of what's left--and COST A FORTUNE.
Losing your mind: the price tag
Alzheimer's and other dementiae were a major concern for my retirement planning clients. Many had older relatives with these issues, and knew first-hand the emotional and financial toll. Long-term care insurance was popular, but buying it got harder and harder--or impossible for some, depending on their medical history.
Some applicants were refused based on their own innocent remarks about forgetfulness recorded in a doctor's notes.
Others would flunk basic memory exams--diffidently given by semiskilled paramedical reps--that might fluster any of us. Coverage declines for these reasons were tough to fight.
Insurers go to great lengths to avoid dementia claims. The related costs are just too high.
"Otherwise physically healthy" people can live for years--but still require 24 hour supervision.
Multi-year facility care, even in a modest setting, can cost up to $97,452.00 each year--or more. 24 hour in-home care costs can be higher. Imagine paying this for 5, 7 or 10 years.
Alzheimer's odds don't favor retirees
Strictly speaking, there is no cure for Alzheimer's.
There is nothing on the horizon, either. Drug giant Pfizer recently terminated research and development on Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Others may follow. None have had any meaningful success with Alzheimer's drugs.
Curiously, Pfizer bowed out about the same time articles and information began to reach critical mass (on the internet) on how diet may be related to Alzheimer's.
One example is a January 2018 Atlantic article highlighting how sugar and carbohydrate intake can now be statistically linked to chances of getting Alzheimer's.
One chilling quote:
"It's increasingly looking like Alzheimer's is another potential side effect of a sugary, Western-style diet."
Retirees need to read this article, and the related study, carefully.
The science is out there
The criminally little-known 2014 Bredesen study, on how diet and lifestyle affects cognitive decline, backs this up.
The results remarkable, and achieved through SIMPLE, MANAGEABLE adjustments to the subjects' diet and routine.
These "adjustments" look a lot like the diet and lifestyle known today as Paleo.
The terms "paleo" or "paleolithic" aren't used in the study, but the biological references show that scientists already know that grains and carbs are problematic--which is why the study's first step is to reduce or eliminate them from the subjects diets.
The results speak for themselves, but first let's outline the study's "therapeutic system":
1. Minimize carbs and systemic inflammation by offering several low grain, low glycemic diets.
2. Add a longer fasting period between evening and morning meals (minimum 12 hours.)
3. Create or add time for personalized stress-reducing activities, like yoga, music or meditation.
4. Optimize SLEEP, with a goal of 8 hours per night.
5. Exercise, most days, half hour to an hour each session.
6. Targeted, individualized diet supplementation to optimize (not just normalize) hormone levels, especially brain chemistry related to cognition.
(Besides removing grains, sugar and processed food, most Paleo life systems emphasize stress reduction, optimized sleep, regular exercise, intermittent fasting, and optional--but strongly recommended--supplementation.)
90% improvement rate using this "Paleolithic" approach
3-6 months of this "enforced Paleo" measurably improved cognition in 9 of 10 cases.
Six subjects had stopped working or were about to, due to cognitive issues--but all were able to return to their jobs.
The study text is technical, but worth at least skimming through. The discussion of several participants' decline, and subsequent improvement, both chills and inspires.
These were real-world professionals, including an attorney, who increasingly couldn't remember people, places, figures, directions, or to turn off a stove--but who also reversed a supposedly unstoppable process.
The study even points out that the subjects had a hard time with the regimen, and none followed all the protocols 100% of the time...but still improved. (Many Paleo devotees report the same thing. 80/20 compliance is often the norm.)
Massaging the numbers in your favor, stone-age style
The only participant who didn't improve began with advanced Alzheimer's.
Maybe if we start "managing our risk factors" NOW, we can avoid that category. There is no legitimate reason that we can't build protective behaviors and habits into our retirement (or pre-retirement) years--and thus enjoy more of those years.
It's too easy, and there are too many other ways we win, besides "just" staving off Alzheimer's. (Humdrum extras like weigh loss, gaining more energy, being sick less often.)
On the other hand, we could lose big if we blindly follow the status quo. Do we really want to trade a long, vigorous retirement for bread, cookies, pasta and chips?
Here is why Paleolithic groups, as well as ancient and modern hunter-gatherer societies, had little or no Alzheimer's (or obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease) and how we can strive for similar results:
They rarely, if ever, ate grains or legumes--specifically and especially the PROCESSED variety. (What is it about grains? See this post on Mark's Daily Apple. Read slowly and carefully--then try searching "grains" on the same site, sift through what you find.). Try NOT eating grains and legumes for 30 days. I did--and will never go back.
They didn't eat sugary, processed foods, including industrial seed oils (yes, canola is an industrially processed seed oil.) Drop these for 30 days too. I haven't touched this stuff for over two years. Try (soaking and dehydrating) raw organic nuts and seeds, or make your own almond butter. Experiment with stevia and raw honey--in moderation. There are plenty of treats out there that won't trigger your LTC insurance early--or ever.
They kept moving, most days, all day, plus a few sprints here and there, to catch antelope or outrun the odd sabertooth. All YOU need to do is get on a treadmill, or better yet, step outside in the sun and...walk! What about tai chi or light resistance training? Gardening? Crossfit gardening? Nature didn't intend for us to sit still all day, then go to bed. When we do, Bad Things happen. Here is another study that shows exercise can help fight Alzheimer's.
They experienced at least "intermittent" fasting periods, when game was scarce or hadn't been caught that day. Finish dinner at 7 or 8? Try to avoid breakfast until 8 or later. (If you're retired, you control your time, right?) This boosts all the body's weight loss and cleanup processes.
If they did eat vegetables (or fruit, or nuts, or tubers) this was seasonal, fresh--and not the majority of their diet. Replace all the grains, legumes and processed stuff with a variety of fresh vegetables, nuts, seeds, and some fruit. Keep the carbs low (more berries, fewer bananas.) This is much easier than most people think.
They consumed game nose-to-tail, including all the organs--richer in micronutrients than muscle meat. Some ate high-protein, nutrient-dense bugs. Consider liver, heart, kidneys, brains, the works. Personally I find beef heart the easiest to prepare and tolerate. Rediscover chicken livers, guilt-free. Whole sardines are packed with healthy fats and nutrients. (Did you catch the fresh vs. farmed fish idea in the study?) If you prefer, do some research and decide which supplements might make sense. Insects are strictly optional.
Too simplistic to be true...or just simple enough to make sense?
Alzheimer's is devastating. No one should minimize its significance or damage potential. Generations of families have been afflicted.
To some, discussing this heartbreaking, apparently unstoppable condition in the same breath as diet and exercise might seem cavalier. Such a serious disease would seem to warrant a more high-tech, invasive or extensive cure.
But there are none. Pfizer bowed out, others may follow.
The Bredesen study states: "Neurodegenerative disease therapeutics has been, arguably, the field of greatest failure of biomedical therapeutics development."
Where does that leave us? We can't sit idly by as friends and relatives recede into Alzheimer's and other dementias.
Many families, absent useful medical advice, throw up their hands and start looking for their own answers--in books, on the internet, or both.
This is how most people discover Paleo--and this is how I discovered that there is a TON of science and personal experience showing that diet and exercise really can have a positive effect on Alzheimer's.
It may sound too easy, but it makes too much sense not to try it. What have we got to lose, besides a few pounds and a four weeks minus the pizza?
We really don't have any other choice.
Suggested reading: The Alzheimer's Antidote by Amy Berger MS, CNS, MTP
(Thanks and kudos to Robb Wolf for getting Amy's message out there.)
EXTRA CREDIT: Why aren't we hearing more--or anything--about these ideas, from the medical community or even the Alzheimer's Association? Why aren't these small but pivotal studies being replicated on a large scale?
Gee I wonder...
And don't forget:
DAVID WHITESIDE IS NOT A DOCTOR and does not give medical advice or treatment. He offers information and personal experience only. Nothing you read on this website or blog should be construed as medical advice or as intended to supersede information you get from your medical professional. Following the advice given here or on any recommended resource site does not create a doctor-patient relationship or create liability for David or anyone else. David is not liable for any loss or complication you experience from following any diet or taking any action. You should check with your properly accredited medical professional if you think you are injured or ill.