Sally Weinrich knew something was terribly wrong. On two separate occasions, she forgot to pick up her grandkids from school, and she kept mixing up their names. The 70-year-old retired nursing professor had to face reality. Her worsening symptoms — the forgetfulness and confusion, the difficulties communicating and organizing activities — weren’t just stress or the normal wear and tear of aging. She lived in a matchless setting, on a lake in South Carolina, nestled in a bucolic wood. She swam daily and kayaked three days a week. But even her purposefully healthy lifestyle couldn’t protect her from the darkness she feared most: Alzheimer’s disease.
In 2015, imaging tests revealed the presence of amyloid plaques, the sticky proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease that collect around brain cells and interfere with relaying messages. Weinrich also eventually learned she carried the ApoE4 gene, which increases the odds of developing Alzheimer’s. The disease was diagnosed after a neuropsychological evaluation. “I felt a total sense of hopelessness,” recalls Weinrich, who sank into a deep depression. “I wanted to die.”
Shortly after, her husband heard a radio program about a new treatment regimen devised by physician Dale Bredesen that seemed to reverse early stage Alzheimer’s. The couple contacted the UCLA professor of neurology. Bredesen told them that, based on nearly 30 years of research, he believes Alzheimer’s is triggered by a broad range of factors that upset the body’s natural process of cell turnover and renewal; he didn’t think it emerged from just a handful of rogue genes or plaques spreading across the brain.
Bredesen has identified more than three dozen mechanisms that amplify the biological processes that drive the disease. While these contributors by themselves aren’t enough to tip the brain into a downward spiral, taken together they have a cumulative effect, resulting in the destruction of neurons and crucial signaling connections between brain cells. “Normally, synapse-forming and synapse-destroying activities are in dynamic equilibrium,” explains Bredesen, but these factors can disturb this delicate balance.
These bad actors include chronic stress, a lack of exercise and restorative sleep, toxins from molds, and fat-laden fast foods. Even too much sugar, or being pre-diabetic, heightens risk. “If you look at studies, you see the signature of insulin resistance in virtually everyone with Alzheimer’s,” he says. “If you look at all the risk factors, so many of them are associated with the way we live.”
In spring 2016, Weinrich underwent an extensive evaluation that included blood and genetic tests, online cognitive assessments and, a year later, an MRI to spot the underlying mechanisms contributing to her cognitive troubles. The imaging scan showed that her hippocampus, the brain region that regulates memory, had severely atrophied and was in the 14th percentile for her age — 86 percent of peers were better off. Bredesen says other tests he administered revealed high concentrations of fungus and mold toxins in her system, which he interpreted as residual damage from exposure to mold that had festered in the basement of one of her previous residences. Also discovered were deficiencies in other areas that might contribute to dementia, such as high levels of fasting insulin.
Bredesen crunched all these results with a computer algorithm that calculated a complex 36-point personalized therapeutic program to counteract Weinrich’s specific constellation of deficits. Initially she was overwhelmed, but she gradually incorporated the changes into her lifestyle. She now sleeps about eight hours a night, fasts 14 hours a day starting in the evening and begins her morning with a 30-minute meditation. She takes a host of supplements, has cut down on carbs and increased her vegetable consumption, and gets plenty of exercise that includes yoga, Pilates, swimming, kayaking and hiking trips.
“I felt better almost immediately,” says Weinrich, who once again engages in meaningful conversations and plays with her grandkids without embarrassing cognitive lapses. “I have my life back.”Weinrich’s apparent improvement begs the question: Could one of our most dreaded diseases really be eased by strict adherence to almost monastically healthy habits? This new approach is based on the premise that our modern lifestyles — along with environmental assaults from infectious pathogens and toxins — are as much to blame for Alzheimer’s as renegade genes or plaques.
Growing evidence suggests we may finally be on the right track.