Dementia risk-management was not something that was on my mind when I was 20. Or when I was 30, 40, 50 or even 60, for that matter. Had it been, I would have been shit out of luck because the research had not been done yet and so there were no guidelines to work with.
Looking back at my life, though, it appears that I did a pretty good job of dodging high-risk dementia-related behaviors. Of course, I could not have done it intentionally because I didn’t know what those behaviors were, so basically, I lucked out. But as Pippin’s father Charlemagne told him: ‘It’s smarter to be lucky than it’s lucky to be smart!’
Here’s a partial summary of my smart luck. I’ve highlighted risk factors for dementia in bold.
Let me start with something that’s not a behavior at all: my genetic makeup. First and foremost, I was born a male. For reasons that are still not yet fully understood, women are at higher risk for developing dementia.
Secondly, it appears that I did not inherit the dreaded APOE4 gene which is linked to early onset Alzheimer’s. My mother demented at around the age of 83, but her sister was cognitively spry when she died at 94. Nobody on my father’s side lived long enough to find out if there was any dementia lurking there.
Like most boys growing up in the 50s and 60s, I played tackle football with pads after school every day in the fall. I was pretty small for my age, earning the nickname ‘shrimpotz’ in 4th grade, and I was still only 130 pounds when I got to my sophomore year of high school, so I figured playing football was hopeless and switched to running. The lucky thing here is that I was never knocked unconscious or had a concussion. Another risk factor averted.
Not only did I dodge that bullet, but running became a lifelong habit. I was in the first cohort of joggers to take to the streets, back when it was considered cool for cars and trucks to try to run you off the road. Unknowingly, I had adopted one of the 5 core behaviors for reducing dementia risk…and I did it at a very early age.
I also lucked out when it came to education. I started school in Newark, NJ, where the quality of the education offered had already begun its decline from the system that produced Philip Roth in the 1940s to the one that failed and was taken over by the State of New Jersey in the 1990s. When I was about to enter 4th grade, my parents were able to move us to a town with some of the best schools in the state. I flourished there and wound up getting into Brown University.
All of that was fortuitous because, as it turns out, attending a high quality elementary school and going to college are both protective factors. Again, lucky me!
But it didn’t stop there. When I was 44, I decided to become a psychologist and so I spent the next 6 years in graduate school, first at Marywood University in Scranton, PA, and then at the University of Connecticut. Once again, I didn’t do it to promote my long-term brain health, but we now know that that kind of intense cognitive challenge involving learning new skills and information is also one of the pillars of dementia risk-reduction.
Along those lines, I suppose it also helped that I changed careers every 10 years and that all of those careers were people-oriented.
With its heavy doses of sugar, refined flour, saturated fats, beef and fried foods, the American diet is a notorious contributor to dementia risk. For a long time, I ate with abandon in service to my taste buds, ignoring calories, cholesterol and fat content. Can you say “large pizza with extra cheese, sausage and pepperoni?”
Fortunately, I did not have a sweet tooth and my metabolism did not lend itself to excessive weight gain. Thus I dodged two more dementia bullets in spite of myself: diabetes and obesity.
My worst period in terms of unhealthy eating was when we were running our B&B. I was the cook, serving up eggs, bacon and breakfast pastries every day. And every day I ate what I was cooking. By the end of that run, though, I realized that I needed to make some changes. There was a history of heart disease on my father’s side (it killed both him and his father when they were around 60), so I figured I better start eating a heart-smart diet. The research for that was plentiful, so I gave up red meat, began using low-fat products, and ate more vegetables, fish and pasta. As fate would have it, all those changes were helpful in maintaining brain health (and constitute another pillar of a brain-healthy lifestyle). I was in my 40s at the time.
I was never a big drinker. In fact, I was a cheap drunk, getting tipsy on just 2 beers. In college, I tried to become a ‘better’ drinker (you can imagine the peer pressure) and even managed to down a 6-pack of Schlitz one night before passing out. But excessive drinking was not in the cards for me. That doesn’t mean that I never got drunk because I did when the occasion merited it. But I never really liked the taste, whether it was beer, wine or hard liquor. Even now, it’s hard for me to drink a few ounces of red wine with dinner, but I do it for the purported brain-health benefits.
On the other hand, I never had any desire or interest in smoking. I hated it ever since I was in grade school and my parents used to light up at the dinner table at the end of the meal. I became an anti-smoking advocate at an early age, so much so, that people were astonished to learn that I had smoked pot! Oh, I suppose I took in my fair share of second-hand smoke (my first wife of 36 years was a smoker), but I think its safe to put this in the ‘dodged a bullet’ column, too.
There are a few other risk factors I haven’t covered here. You can see them all at this link to see how lucky you’ve been:
Finally, there is one risk factor I haven’t yet dodged, and it’s the biggest one: age. The older you are, the greater your chances of dementing. But dodging that bullet is a good thing, isn’t it? 🙂