Like most people, I am subject to a regular barrage of media reports, coming from radio, television, internet news outlets, social media and daily RSS feeds. And here is what this information stream has taught me:
If I eat blueberries, I’ll lower my risk of Alzheimer’s. Or was that tomatoes? It now appears that yogurt lowers the risk as well—does that mean blueberry yogurt, or will any old flavor do? Maybe I should have coconut flavored yogurt, because apparently, if all that coconut oil doesn’t kill me with a heart attack, it may make my brain healthier.
And now it appears I may have to replace my plumbing, because a new study suggests that too much copper causes Alzheimer’s; though other medical studies have shown that a high copper intake actually lowers the risk. So which is it? And is lead involved? (I need to know because I tend to chew on my pencils when I do my daily Sudoku puzzles.)
And then there’s the glucose connection, the blood pressure connection, the inflammatory connection, the brain reserve connection, the mood disorder connection, the social connections connection.
And what kind of a teenager was I? Apparently, certain adolescent behaviors raise your risk. One of them is getting drunk; well, thank God, none of us ever did that! Also, it’s a risk if you have a history of adolescent antipsychotic use. (Tell that to the psychiatrists who are finding all kinds of new reasons to prescribe these drugs to young people, from depression to “oppositional disorders”.)
Another risk factor (cue Randy Newman) is being too short. Time to get out the gravity boots? And if that weren’t bad enough, now the folks in Manhattan say dementia can come from exposure to bacterial and viral infections. (Someone sneezed on me just the other day, and I swear my ADAS-Cog score dropped two points!)
Okay everyone, are you listening to me?? STOP! Just…stop. If there were a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to Dementia”, the first words would still be: “Don’t panic.”
What we have here is a collection of illnesses closely tied to the aging process, and a sequence of changes that may begin decades before we show any outward signs. And we are dissecting all the minutiae of the millions of things we do, eat, drink or experience in our lives—trying to find connections, however tenuous, that we can shoot to the media outlets to fuel the frenzy.
There are a lot of people making money off of our hysteria and paranoia. But it’s much worse than that.
You see, the more we fuel this kind of panic, the more we demonize the condition; and consequently, the more we demonize and dehumanize people who live with cognitive disability. Folks like Dr. Bill Thomas have long warned us that those people who do less or produce less are devalued in our society. It is also now clear that a similar fate befalls those who remember less in our hyper-cognitive, technology-obsessed world.
Here are a couple of known facts to keep in mind: We all die. Many of us who live to a ripe old age will experience changes in various organ functions and capabilities. Many of us will become forgetful as we reach our later years. Those who do are not bad people.
There is so much emphasis on “successful aging” these days—what does that mean? Are you successful if you run marathons until you are 96 and then die in your sleep, or at the completion of some incredible sexual escapade? That’s romantic, but highly subjective and unlikely. More important, this fixation on how we end our lives not only threatens to devalue who we are in our last years, but also how we have lived all of the earlier days of our lives.
And if you don’t make it to the grave with all of your organ functions intact (an oxymoron in itself), what is that called? “Failed aging”? What about people born with developmental disabilities or congenital illness? They would be “failed agers” from the very start. No need to even give them blueberries and yogurt, I guess.
You and I will always be more than the sum of what we can do and what we can remember. So here’s the advice I would put in my “Hitchhiker’s Guide”:
No matter who you are or how you live your life, you have a chance of becoming forgetful as you age. You risk is never zero, but no one knows your exact “number”. You can almost certainly lower that risk somewhat if you eat well, exercise and do things that are good for your body, mind, and spirit; your risk will probably go up if you abuse any of those. But being obsessive about every little thing you do will likely not improve your odds to a greater extent than healthy moderation.
Find that “sweet spot” that gives you a life worth living. When we stop indulging the fear mongers, we can see the value in people of all abilities. This will help us to visualize a true path to well-being for all.