It was summer of 1978, and I was four years old. Standing on my front porch, I could feel the heavy Midwest humidity envelop my skin. My sandals were strangling my chubby feet.
I noticed my Dorothy Hamill bowl haircut was starting to stick to my forehead. Frustration curled around my fists as I pounded on the door.
*KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK*
Why wasn’t she answering? I had explained at LEAST five times how to play “house” to my grandmother:
She opens the door.
She says “hello, won’t you come in?” and I walk in for a cup of “coffee” (orange Kool-Aid).
Yet, every time I closed the door and knocked, she still wouldn’t open it. I’d had enough. My sweaty hands slipped around the doorknob until it clicked open.
My grandmother was not there.
Curious, I peeked into the open doorway and heard the faint sounds of Finnish being spoken in the faraway kitchen. My grandfather’s tone was tersely punctuated and impatient. My grandmother’s responses were softly wandering and confused.
My grandmother was 64, and Alzheimer’s was ravaging her brain.
In my four short years, I grew up witnessing her smiling brightness fade into polite uncertainty….until it finally settled into a rigid flatness before I was five. Within a year, she was dead at age 65.
The glassy-eyed torch of Alzheimer’s was then passed later to my grandfather, then my own father. My siblings and I grew up under a fearful cloud of Death by Alzheimer’s. Which is ironic, since my grandfather’s funeral business made Death a matter-of-fact ticker tape of conversation.
But, Alzheimer’s was the uninvited guest at our ancestral dinner table. That Drunk Uncle that spontaneously shows up, leaves embarrassing clothes lying around, uncovers awkward personality quirks, throws hostile glances, and eventually evaporates into nothingness.
The facts of dementia are sobering:
Every 65 seconds someone develops Alzheimer’s
Since the year 2000, death by heart disease has reduced by 11%, but death from Alzheimer’s has risen by 123%
16.1 million Americans provide unpaid care for others with dementia
If you would’ve asked me whether I wanted to know my fate 20 years ago, my answer would vehemently be “NO.” (Why bother? It’s obvious the cards are stacked against my family. There was no way to pull a “Reverse” card from this Uno deck.)
I hadn’t met Functional Medicine yet.
Until now, I had only learned to prescribe Namenda and Aricept once the disease was diagnosed. As a family physician, this felt futile. It only slowed the progression. I wanted to do more for families like mine.
Now, in my Functional Medicine clinic, I am able to give comprehensive and thorough recommendations to my patients! I understand the whole spectrum of tools to use in a full functional treatment plan for those at risk for Alzheimer’s:
Following a low glycemic, anti-inflammatory diet
Supplementing with magnesium to avoid depressive mood states
Knowing your ApoE4 status and adjusting supplements and vitamins accordingly
Strengthening your social bonds and avoiding loneliness
Learning to modulate stress and cortisol
The link between mitochondria and brain health is a strong one. By nurturing this key foundational energy source, every person can flourish. Especially those most vulnerable...Like those with genetic risk for Alzheimer’s….or are overweight and struggle with sugar….or who feel lonely and depressed…..or struggle with burnout and stress.
Just like 50% of our nation’s physicians.
Doctor’s Day is coming up in one week.
Do your part to help prevent more dementia and share this blog post with your favorite healthcare worker.
You just might help open the door for another four year old, standing on the front porch.
(the photo was taken in 1977 of my grandmother, Aileen Lehtimaki and I)