Contrary to popular belief, Alzheimer’s is not a natural part of the aging process. With no known cure for the disease, more attention is being put towards prevention. Learn what one filmmaker is doing to help raise awareness about the connection on how diet and lifestyle could prevent cognitive decline.
The Alzheimer’s Association reports that, “Every 67 seconds someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s.” That translates to more than 5 million Americans currently living with Alzheimer’s disease, with two-thirds of those being women.
When Max Lugavere’s 59 year old mother started showing signs of cognitive decline, with no known family history for Alzheimer’s — he felt compelled to find some answers. And, upon discovering recent findings that, “Around a third of Alzheimer’s diseases cases worldwide might be attributable to potentially modified risk factors,” meaning, one in three cases may be preventable, this motivated Lugavere to pose the question, “What if America’s most feared disease is a choice we make at checkout.”
Leveraging his skills and experience as a filmmaker and TV personality, Lugavere launched a Kickstarter campaign asking people to co-create a documentary called “Bread Head” that focuses on the cutting-edge research around neurodegenerative disease and how our daily choices can help prevent the onset of symptoms. With less than two days left on the campaign, Lugavere talks with Alzheimers.net about why he wants everyone whose lives have been touched by neurodegenerative disease to help create this film in order to spread the knowledge about the power of prevention.
“Prevention is the new frontier and I’m really excited to get this message out in front of an audience that really needs to hear it — and I’m very happy to step up to the challenge, it’s so urgent.”
Alzheimers.net (ALZNET): Can you provide details on your background and what led you to launch this campaign?
Max Lugavere (ML): I was one of the founding on air personalities for Al Gore’s Current TV, which was my first job out of college and did that for five or six years. As an artist, filmmaker and storyteller — I then left to create my own content and ended up doing a web series that was pretty successful. I was also pretty interested in music — and after thinking about what my next steps were going to be after leaving Current TV, that’s when my mom started showing signs of cognitive decline and other weird symptoms. What she has is sort of hard to categorize and it was shocking and things I had to come to terms with.
ALZNET: What were some of the signs your mother started showing to make you take it serious enough to go see a neurologist?
ML: It was a combination of cognitive symptoms and symptoms around movement. Cognition to me is our minds, our memories, sort of our reason to communicate who we are — and that became the most frustrating aspect to whatever else she has. So I began focusing on Alzheimer’s disease which is the most common form of dementia, and to treat the symptoms she was having, they put her on some of the common Alzheimer’s drugs because regardless of the kind of cognitive situation someone has, the best they can do is to prescribe the same drugs.
I became frustrated by the limited treatment options as well. A lot of people describe the field of neurology as being one based on this idea of diagnose and adios, and although the scientific innovation in this country is incredible — as far as health care is concerned, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that too often we just try to treat the symptoms and not address the underlining disease. So for me, someone who is actually really into science and health, I felt instantly mobilized to dig into the research and do the best that I could to understand. I was also motivated by the fact that my mom is not old, which meant I couldn’t just write it off to being just a natural part of aging, which it is not, and many people believe that it is. I also don’t think that I have a family history of it, so it wasn’t something that I thought was in my family tree. So I became highly motivated to find answers and I came across leaders in the intersection of functional medicine and neurology, and it was very eye opening for me.
ALZNET: How did you get involved in the Alzheimer’s clinic that you are participating in?
ML: The Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic is led by Dr. Richard Isaacson who is one of the interviewees in the documentary and he is an example of one of these cutting edge thinkers in the field of neurology who are helping to usher in this idea of prevention.
It’s a fairly recent development to mention Alzheimer’s and prevention in the same sentence and not get, you know, sort of laughed at, and today, it’s a new frontier and I think it’s very much owed to guys like Dr. Isaacson.
I stumbled onto his work and I found out he has a clinic here in Manhattan and I reached out to him not only because I wanted to feature his work in the film, but also because he’s actually the neurologist focusing on this idea of prevention. I wanted to get in touch with him to see if there were steps that I could be taking to optimize my own brain health and what I learned is that changes in the brain begin 30 years earlier than when symptoms actually arrive, so it made that urgency all that more concrete.
ALZNET: The tests you took determined that you have high levels of the amino acids associated with Alzheimer risk, so does that mean it’s genetic for you?
ML: Alzheimer’s is not a hereditary disease. Up to 20% of the population in the U.S. have an elevated genetic risk factor, but genes are not destiny. And that’s sort of the point that I am trying to drive home. Not everyone with this increased genetic risk goes onto develop Alzheimer’s, and not everyone with Alzheimer’s has this genetic risk factor. So I’m really looking at the way we can modulate our diets and our lifestyles to minimize the expression of that gene, however that may be. In fact, they found that just by doing exercise you can negate the effects of that genetic predisposition. These are the kinds of insights that I want to popularize. Even before seeing Dr. Isaacson, I was a customer of 23andMe and I think it’s a really cool service.
In talking to people about it, I discovered a lot of people are afraid to look into their own genome for fear of what risks might present themselves. But I don’t think that we should be afraid because if anything, knowing our genetics is empowering, because again, genes are not destiny.
ALZNET: What lifestyle changes have you made in order to help prevent Alzheimer’s that you can recommend to our readers?
ML: I think sleep is vitally important, especially today with my generation where our faces are just glued to our Smartphones 24 hours a day, and I’m guilty of this as well. Very recently there was a study that showed just using your iPad before bed disrupts your REM sleep and this is important because it’s during sleep, especially deep sleep, that your brain is cleaning itself of the kind of plaque that they find in Alzheimer’s patients. So, optimizing sleep is one way to do well by your brain. I am minimizing my iPad and iPhone usage before bed and I installed an app on my Macbook that removes blue light in accordance to where the sun is in the sky so that it doesn’t disrupt melatonin production. These are reasons why sleep is a massive player.
Exercise is vitally important. Get as much exercise as you can — especially aerobic exercise. They’ve found that aerobic versus stretching is far more beneficial. It’s important to figure out what it is you like to do. Like, I hate running, but I’ve been able to get used to the elliptical for my cardio. A lot of people these days have been sold that brain games work, and I think the consensus is that you just get better at the games, there’s very little translation between doing them and real world cognitive improvement. But exercise on the other hand has been shown over and over again to be beneficial not just for the physiology of the brain, but that aerobic exercise can promote neurogenesis which is the creation of new brain cells, and it also improves your actual working memory.
Exercise is one of the greatest things you can possibly do for your brain.
Exercise promotes insulin sensitivity, and that’s vital to making sure that your cells are fed. It would be more intuitive that brain games and exercises would be good for your brain, but you just get better at them. Playing Sudoku day in and day out just makes you better at Sudoku.
There’s things like musical training — it’s what Dr. Isaacson is a big proponent of. It goes above and beyond just a game. It’s a complex concert of behavior that needs to come together from your senses, your input-output motor coordination — so musical training has shown to be very productive in delaying cognitive decline.
Make sure your vitamin D levels are optimized. Vitamin D regulates up to the expression of 1,000 genes which is actually 5% of the human genome, so vitamin D is massively important. I take a vitamin D supplement every day.
Diet is huge. Based off of everything I’ve learned, I’ve opted to eat a low carbohydrate diet. There’s a lot of hints that at least part of the underlining pathology of Alzheimer’s could be metabolic in origin, so knowing that the brain is a very metabolic-hungry organ as it consumes 20% of your base metabolic rate — I try to eat in a way that keeps my cells as insulin sensitive as possible. Insulin is the hormone that your pancreas secretes when there’s sugar in your blood. Insulin resistance is the hallmark of type 2 diabetes, and the way to avoid that is to stay active and to minimize your sugar intake. So, for brain health, I like to go a step further and minimize my carbohydrate intake.
ALZNET: Are carbohydrates why the film is called “Bread Head,” or are you making a connection between gluten and Alzheimer’s?
ML: The intent is not to make the connection between gluten and Alzheimer’s because the connection is not there yet in the research. There’s a lot of brilliant people that have made that connection and I think that gluten is definitely a player since it has an implication on gut health, and the gut-brain axis is a fascinating and new field of study. The reason it’s called “Bread Head” is because we’ve been told for decades to avoid processed foods, but when you look at bread, it has a glycemic index higher than table sugar and the CDC in 2012 ascertained that it’s America’s number one source of dietary sodium. So really you have this thing that has all the hallmarks of processed foods yet it’s masquerading as a health staple. Whole grain bread is one of those things that I thought before doing all this research that the more you ate the better your health would be, but in reality it spikes your blood sugar more intensely than table sugar. So again, we want to keep ourselves as insulin sensitive as possible for many reasons, not just brain health, and bread is one of those things that should be consumed in moderation.
ALZNET: You’ve successfully hit your campaign goal and are now into your stretch goal. Are you surprised at the contribution and feedback you’ve received?
ML: This is my first time doing a Kickstarter campaign and we were working on this for months up until we launched. At the end of the day, we all have brains and what I am realizing is that Millennials more and more, as these sorts of cognitive problems arise with their parents and their grandparents for the first time, and are left scratching their heads wondering what they can do about it. I am pleasantly surprised. I believe that it’s an important idea, and it’s an idea that’s a lot bigger than myself.
The oldest Millennial is now 35 years old and there’s really no time like the present, especially knowing that changes can begin in the brain nearly 30 years before the first symptom can show up.
The feedback has been amazing and completely humbling. Nutritional science is very confusing and the people have put their trust in me and it’s something I don’t regard lightly. I plan to make the film as credible as I can and explore the cutting edge on this, and the cutting edge tends to be controversial occasionally and my hope is to ignite a much needed debate.
We are going to begin shooting as soon as the campaign is over. There’s preproduction to do but my goal is to have the film finished this year, it’s not something that I want to sit on. We want to use the momentum we’ve built. We’ve had amazing support from our interviewees and the community as a whole so I don’t see any significant roadblocks.
ALZNET: How is your mother doing today?
ML: She’s doing good. We are in the process of trying to find the best combination of therapies that work for her, but she is a definitely a priority and we continue to see what we can do for her. She doesn’t have a textbook diagnosis. She hasn’t been diagnosed with having Alzheimer’s disease, but she does have some kind of cognitive thing going on. When you dig into these sorts of diseases there are so many overlapping pathologies, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s have a lot in common, where they have found the same beta-amyloid protein buildup in Parkinson’s as well. So, we are not sitting idly until we get a diagnosis — we’re trying to take as many steps as we can. For all of these diseases, there seems to be a neuroinflammatory component, so we are trying to do our best to minimize inflammation, making sure she’s eating a diet that is lower in carbohydrates, cutting out all sugar, she’s exercising as much as she can, and getting optimal sleep — so she’s doing everything and she’s doing well. There are good days and there are bad days.
ALZNET: Any final insights you’ve learned?
ML: It’s been a paradigm shift for me. When I go to the gym now and I’m on the elliptical, I’m thinking about my brain. It’s like a weird thing. I used to run or whatever for body fat or for cardiovascular health, and now I think for every ten minutes I am spending on the treadmill, it’s like giving my brain a tonic of blood flow and endorphins, and all the other great brain derived neurotrophic factors that you boost just by doing exercise.
If you’d like to co-create “Bread Head,” there’s still time to contribute to the campaign and help bring this important documentary to life.
Has your family been touched by a neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s or dementia? Please share in the comments below on what lifestyles changes you plan to make for the prevention of cognitive decline.