Last week my wife and I finished watching “The Alzheimer’s Project,” a four-part series on HBO. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it; the episodes are informative and often touching. You may find yourself moved to tears.
I certainly was, but that’s mostly because I was thinking about my dad, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a couple of years ago and has declined markedly in the past six months. I always expected to lose my father someday, but not like this. I thought he’d be here one day and gone the next. I would say goodbye, grieve for awhile, and miss him forever. Instead, we lose a little bit of him day by day.
For most of my life, my image of my dad was largely defined by his high intelligence and quick wit. He left a comfortable corporate job in his mid-30s to buy his own business and did well. He devoured books and magazines and remembered everything he read. When we played Trivial Pursuit, he’d run the table in about a half hour, then the rest of us would play on as if he hadn’t been there. Some friends of his who saw my standup comedy act commented that they saw a lot his style of humor in mine, and they were right. I tell stories on stage, and my dad was always a gifted story-teller.
In retrospect, we realize something began going awry in his brain at least a few years before the official diagnosis. He stopped reading and spent hours vegetating in front of the TV. His once-competent golf game went south. He began missing stop signs and making wrong turns in the neighborhood were he’d lived for more than 30 years. But most of the time, he still seemed like himself.
Nowadays, he can’t follow a normal conversation. He rarely knows what day it is. He tries to put his legs into the sleeves of his shirt when he’s dressing. When my parents have friends over for dinner, he’ll tell my mom he’s tired and wants to go home. In recent weeks, he’s had to ask both my mom and my sister who they are. I haven’t seen him since the holiday season, and I know the next time I go home to visit, there’s a good chance he won’t know who I am.
I’ve read quite a bit about Alzheimer’s in the past year, and I know now that my dad was a walking bundle of risk factors. His mother died of the disease, although she was in her mid-eighties, not early seventies. He took Lipitor for 20 years. Despite being touted as wonder drug that may even help with Alzheimer’s, the truth is that memory problems are a known side-effect of statins. Dr. Duane Graveline, a former NASA astronaut, suffered bouts of extreme confusion and memory loss until he identified Lipitor as the culprit and stopped taking it.
(And by the way, Dad still ended up with stents put in his arteries, which were 98 percent blocked. So much for the wonders of statins.)
Dad was also a heavy smoker until he quit at age 58 – and then, like many people who give up nicotine, he developed a fondness for sweets and starches. He gained a lot of weight. He suffered from sleep apnea. He showed all the signs of someone developing insulin resistance.
Which brings me back to The Alzheimer’s Project. In one episode, they named insulin resistance as a major risk factor. Diabetics are four times more likely to develop the disease, and people who are insulin-resistant are at three times the usual risk. Many doctors are now referring to Alzheimer’s as Type III Diabetes.
I was pleased at that point. But then some goofy doctor cited a study which demonstrated that people who consume a diet high in sugar and saturated fat produce more insulin than those who consume a diet low in sugar and saturated fat. I nearly jumped off out of my chair, yelling, “What the @#$% does saturated fat have to do with insulin?! Fat is the only macronutrient that doesn’t raise insulin!”
This is akin to comparing people who consume a lot of whiskey and carrots to those who consume almost no whiskey and very few carrots. Turns out the key to sobriety is a low-whiskey, low-carrot diet. (Don’t order the side of carrots if you’re driving yourself home.)
Meanwhile, as my wife and I watched the scenes that showed Alzheimer’s patients and their families struggling at home, we couldn’t help but notice their meals were a parade of mashed potatoes, pies, cookies, sodas, and other carbohydrates. This proves nothing, of course; you could step into most American kitchens and find those foods on the table. But it certainly adds weight to the theory that Alzheimer’s may be a form of diabetes.
Some months ago, we watched another documentary about a woman’s personal struggles dealing with her mother’s Alzheimer’s. She noted that rates of Alzheimer’s are increasing, and since she grew up in a town polluted with industrial waste, she guessed that pollutants may be largely to blame.
Perhaps so. But I think it’s more likely that the rise in Alzheimer’s is being driven by the same factor that’s driving the rise in obesity and Type II diabetes: high-carbohydrate diets. Nature simply didn’t intend for human beings to rely on high levels of insulin to smack their blood sugar down several times per day.
The last episode, which was presented in two parts, featured some brilliant and dedicated researchers who are working to develop drugs to stop the disease. They believe they’re close. That’s good news, but if Alzheimer’s truly is Type III diabetes, then prevention is (as always) the best medicine. That means ignoring the stupid advice we’ve been fed by the USDA , the FDA, and countless other nutrition “experts,” and getting off the sugar and the starch.
I just wish I could go back in time and warn my dad. I’d also like to tell him I love him a few more times without having to explain who I am.