In the last 5 years, I've had both parents die from complications of Alzheimer's Disease. My father had high cholesterol for years and had been slowly going blind from macular degeneration since his late 50s. My mother also had high cholesterol, high blood pressure, multiple strokes, and heart failure. In the past few years, I've had siblings diagnosed with lymphoma, brain aneurysms, and retinal detachment leading to near blindness.
As if that wasn't enough, 3 years ago I was incapacitated by a ruptured lumbar disc. Previously, I always saw myself as the picture of fitness and health. My only other health 'problem' was a stubbornly high cholesterol level, despite a whole food plant based diet. I'm now over 50, and with all these changes in myself and my family, I began to think seriously about my own mortality for the first time. I began studying lipids, genetics/epigenetics, functional medicine, and natural health and nutrition, and began using what I was learning in my own life.
I’ve been learning about fitness and optimal health since I read my first book about nutrition when I was 14 years old (The Pritikin Program). I put it into practice immediately, with regular exercise and healthy diet. In high school at a pizza party, I remember trying to secretly remove the pepperoni and blotting away the oil with a napkin before eating it. In college the gym was my second home. I frequently had simple, cheap meals consisting of hunks of raw broccoli and lettuce with a can of tuna fish in water. Of course, I still indulged in pizza, tacos and burritos like any college student, but I continued to generally avoid fried food and too much sugar.
Toward the end of my undergraduate meteorology training, my roommate was my high school friend who was starting his first year of medical school. I realized I was much more interested in what he was learning than in the advanced calculus and physics required to master the equations that govern the motions of the atmosphere (ie, the weather). Since I had fortunately done really well in my meteorology program, I had already been accepted and funded for grad school in meteorology. After graduation, however, I took a freshman biology course and took the MCAT, and fortunately did well enough to get into medical school in Texas, still close to home. I had trouble deciding on a specialty because I loved learning about how the whole system of the body worked.
I had met the love of my life in medical school, and we were married just before graduation. As I finished my internal medicine residency, we started having kids, and I worked part time to allow plenty of time at home. After my kids started school, I transitioned into a full-time primary care practice. I was amazed to see intelligent, well-educated, wealthy people not much older than me suffering from heart disease, strokes and cancer. I remained immersed in the latest continuing medical education so I could continue to offer the best that modern medicine has to offer, but I began to think more about prevention through diet and lifestyle.
I redoubled my efforts to learn what it takes to prevent and even reverse many common lifestyle diseases. I voraciously read all the books I found on the topics of diet and disease reversal. I revamped my own lifestyle, cleaning up what I thought was already a pretty healthy diet, embracing a 100% whole food plant-based diet after learning of its power to prevent and reverse diseases like diabetes and heart disease. I didn’t realize, however, that my parents were beginning to show signs of something different that I didn’t know much about. This would change everything.
My parents always encouraged healthy eating and they tried to stay active. Even so, looking back on it, around 2010, things started to change. They became more forgetful. They were not eating as healthfully as before. What I know now is that they were both showing the first signs of Alzheimer’s Disease. I knew it was the one disease that there was really no treatment for. I knew that all the sugar and saturated fat they were eating was not good for them, but they were in their 80s, I thought, and deserved to enjoy their food, and I was powerless to change them. I didn’t really know of any evidence that diet mattered much in Alzheimer’s, and even if I did, I’m not sure they would have listened, or had the capacity to change.
Watching them decline and eventually die from complications of dementia was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Given that both my parents had Alzheimer’s I know that I am at increased risk. I began to search the literature more fervently and found that in fact, there are diet and lifestyle factors that really can influence the progress of the disease, preventing the onset by years or decades.
I’m thankful that many of the diet and lifestyle habits I’ve had for decades are generally favorable when it comes to reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s and other chronic disease. I continue to be fueled by a desire, even an obsession, to learn all that there is to know about the genetics and molecular mechanisms that lead to the chronic diseases of aging, put them in to practice in my own life, and help my patients along the way.
I’ve found that I really enjoy taking care of patients are on the same journey towards optimal healthy aging, and I look forward to sharing this journey with many more people.