A man goes to see his doctor for the results of his tests. The doctor says, “I am sorry to have to tell you that you have cancer and you have Alzheimer’s.” The man thinks for a moment and then replies, “Well at least I don’t have cancer.”
I told that joke for many years but I don’t tell it anymore. There is nothing funny about Alzheimer’s. Although a 94-year-old genius named Dr. John Goodenough has been in the news recently for his latest series of inventions and innovations proving once again that creativity and innovation have no age limit, the truth is that aging is not kind to us.
My mom was in a nursing home for almost four years suffering and eventually succumbing to the effects of multiple strokes. It broke my heart to see her deteriorate but I managed to visit her at least once a week. At her dinner table each evening sat a fellow patient, John, a young man in his mid-40s. Whenever I saw him, without fail, he would ask me two questions: “Who are you?” and “where am I?” Each time I would have to reintroduce myself and explain to him where he was and which room was his.
Three weeks ago, I had a farewell lunch with my good friend, Michael, who had suddenly announced his retirement from the practice of law. We have known each other for over 35 years and we have a lot in common. We both graduated from law school in the same year (1974) and we both have been practicing criminal defense work in the Bronx for a long time. Over the last several years, we have been comparing ideas on “the ideal retirement.” Mike ultimately focused on Barcelona as his eventual home but no retirement timetable had been set. That fact made his unexpected retirement announcement puzzling.
At lunch, Michael shared with me that while on trial recently in a very serious case he began to have trouble concentrating. Soon thereafter, his speech became uncontrollably slurred which led him to seek medical advice. His doctor’s verdict was that he suffered from a rather aggressive strain of Parkinson’s disease. As happy as I was that he was now embarking on a much-deserved retirement, I couldn’t help but feel sad thinking of the struggles that lay ahead.
Mike’s situation is not unique. Most of us in the baby boomer generation are facing an uncertain future. Studies have shown that after age 60 most people suffer from at least one chronic disorder, including heart disease or diabetes. A recent study from Sweden indicated that by age 80, most people had two or more chronic diseases. Thirty-two percent of all people over 85 have received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis with the worldwide total of over 50 million. Scientists estimate by the year 2050 that number will jump to 130 million.
Researchers have been working hard to find a cure. However, more than 100 clinical studies and over 200 experimental drugs have failed during the last 30 years. This news coupled with President Trump’s budgetary plan to cut federal funding for medical research does not bode well for my generation, or future generations for that matter.
Just when I thought all hope was lost, I came across the findings of “The Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability” (FINGER). Between 2009 and 2011, a group of Finnish scientists conducted an important study on 1,260 men and women between the ages of 60 and 77. They were randomly divided into control and treatment groups. The control group was left on their own while receiving basic health advice during two regularly scheduled physician visits. The treatment group was required to follow a regimen of diet, exercise and cognitive training. They also received nurse’s visits every three months and were required to see their doctor five times instead of twice during the two-year period.
After two years, the results were astounding. Both groups benefited from the project but the treatment group showed 83 percent improvement over the control group in maintaining cognitive domains that help people in daily activity, which normally would decline with age. As for the time it took them to process ideas, they beat the control group by 150 percent. Lastly, as to complex memory tasks (remembering long lists for example), they scored 40 percent higher than the control group.
This study does not prove that a change of diet and an increase in exercise will prevent us from contracting Alzheimer’s. However, the scientists believe that such a modification in your lifestyle could delay it’s onset from two to five years.
The increasing numbers of new drugs on the market have not slowed the ever expanding dementia epidemic. Yet the FINGER study does give us hope that it may not be too late to change our lifestyle in the hope of enjoying whatever precious time we have in a fully cognitive state.
See you at the gym, my friends.