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Can Young People Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease, Decades Before They Might Get It?

Through his personal story, a filmmaker explores the growing research into how one’s life habits can reduce risk for the brain disease.

Can Young People Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease, Decades Before They Might Get It?
[Source Illustration: RomanYa via Shutterstock]

Like many people, Max Lugavere has an Alzheimer’s story. Three years ago, while the filmmaker was busy figuring out his next steps after a stint as a host on Al Gore’s now-defunct Current TV, Lugavere’s mother started showing cognitive decline. She was just 59 at the time.

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After bringing her to numerous neurologists and being met with limited options, Lugavere became concerned for his own health. So he went on a research binge, setting Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, as his target.

“So often, so little can be done for neurodegenerative diseases,” he says. “I’m obsessed with trying to figure out the underlying pathology, the way our environment interacts with our genes.” Eventually, Lugavere’s research pointed him to the emerging idea that Alzheimer’s is preventable (at least, for a certain subset of the population). With over five million people in the U.S. suffering from Alzheimer’s–the number will likely triple by 2050–that’s a tantalizing prospect.

Bread Head, a documentary from Lugavere looking at the ways that lifestyle, diet, and genetics affect Alzheimer’s risk, is now raising money on Kickstarter.

“I took the fact that I’m obsessed with the brain and my own cognitive boundaries and looked at how to help her and also optimize my own brain health and prevent changes from happening to me,” says the 32-year-old. “The most powerful insight I came across is that Alzheimer’s is diabetes of the brain.”

For anyone with a family history of Alzheimer’s, this sounds like the most tempting kind of pseudo-science. But Lugavere’s assertions, which he plans to explore in the documentary, are not entirely unfounded. A study published last year in Lancet Neurology estimated that one-third of Alzheimer’s cases “might be attributable to potentially modifiable risk factors” like hypertension, lack of exercise, diabetes, and smoking.

Lugavere points to the recently-opened Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic, run by Dr. Richard Isaacson of Weill Cornell Medical Center, as one of a growing number of solutions for people like himself–young, healthy individuals who are concerned about their future risk of neurodegenerative disease. A brochure explains the clinic’s approach:

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Individuals interested in lowering risk for AD can be followed over time and receive a personalized plan based on a variety of elements, such as their risk factors, genes, past/present medical conditions, and the latest scientific research. Patients will be cared for using sophisticated and interactive, state-of-the-art research tools…We emphasize lifestyle and nutritional approaches and study the effects of dietary modifications on brain health.

As you might have inferred from the title of the movie, Lugavere plans to delve into the role that gluten plays in contributing to Alzheimer’s. “For decades we’ve been told to eat as many whole grains as we possibly can, and we’re now starting to see effects of this misinformed advice. We’re not going to specifically single out bread, but it’s an example of an ultra-processed food masquerading as a staple,” he says.

Avoiding processed foods certainly can’t hurt. But the science on improved health from going gluten-free (for people without Celiac disease, at least) is shaky at best.

Nonetheless, Lugavere’s documentary may spur some much-needed discussion on Alzheimer’s prevention. “I’ve chosen to thrust myself into the fight,” he says.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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