My Family Has a History of Dementia—Here's How That Affects My Food Choices
The only memories I have of my great-grandmother are of visiting her in a duplex down the street from my grandma's house. She lived downstairs, while my aunt and cousins lived upstairs in order to act as her caregivers. My mom would bring me to see her when we were in town, but I always felt uncomfortable because she never seemed to realize who any of us were. That was my first experience witnessing the effects of dementia, except at the young age of 10, I had no idea how the condition would impact my life later on.
As a teenager, I decided what to eat for one of two reasons: I chose what tasted good or I chose what was healthy in order to promote weight loss. I was never really focused on my health. I figured because I was young and didn't eat much junk food then I was fine. There's this unspoken belief that the young will always be young. Twentysomethings aren't always focused on prolonging their quality of life, because they subconsciously believe that they'll never age. But I don't have that luxury. After seeing how dementia affected my grandma when I was in college, my thinking changed. I'm keenly aware that one day there's a good chance the disease will affect me as well.
Dementia is a general term for symptoms including memory loss, difficulty reasoning, and a decrease in thinking skills. It can also affect your personality and mood. It's not a disease in and of itself but rather a group of incurable symptoms. Incurable. That's the word that always gets me. The idea that you could lose what makes you you and not even realize it's happening terrifies me—especially since I watched it happen to my grandmother. The grandma I grew up with was kind and lively, but she became combative and mean at times. I tried to remind myself that it was dementia, not her. When she'd lash out at me, it was still difficult not to take it personally. But my grandma isn't the only person whose memory is being affected. My aunt is in her sixties and is already suffering from memory loss, too. And it's heartbreaking.
Witnessing numerous people in my family experience dementia is why I am careful about what I put in my body. Even though certain foods haven't been proven to prevent the illness, for me, taking care of my brain health feels like a good place to start.
For instance, I eat Brussel sprouts at least once a week, mostly for their flavor but also for their health benefits. Cruciferous vegetables, like sprouts, are proven to reduce levels of homocysteine, an amino acid linked to dementia.
I also eat fish high in omega-3 fatty acids with DHA because more than a dozen studies have reported a link between omega-3s and fighting dementia. I buy berries that are high in vitamins that reduce inflammation to maintain brain health and even juice vegetables like beets because they contain nitrates, which may help increase blood flow to the brain, improve cognitive function, and possibly reduce the risk of dementia. And aside from food, I also make sure to exercise, stimulate my brain by reading and writing, and keep my weight to what I think is a healthy range.
Having certain health goals helps reduce my stress. It is easy to panic if I forget simple things like what I had for dinner last week or where I put my phone, but it's important to remember that those things happen to everyone. I know that there's no way to prevent this illness, but taking care of my mental health and brain gives me some comfort.
A year ago, my boyfriend and I decided to send our DNA to 23andMe in order to figure out our lineage. We opted for the health and ancestry kit, which also tests for certain genes that contribute to the likelihood of developing certain illnesses. As I scrolled through the app looking at my results, my mind raced as I hovered over the Alzheimer's tab. Alzheimer's is one of the main causes of dementia, but you're only able to be tested for it postmortem, meaning doctors can't definitively diagnose you with it while you're still alive. However, it can be diagnosed with 90% accuracy through a series of evaluations. I clicked on the Alzheimer's option and it revealed something that I had long feared: I have an increased risk of late-onset Alzheimer's disease. I wasn't surprised by the findings, but I did feel rattled seeing my chance of getting dementia in print. It made it more real. Of course, I know it doesn't mean I will definitely get the disease, but it is probable, which is why it's up to me to do my best to keep my brain healthy. I don't want to be an elderly woman wondering why I didn't do everything in my power to keep my brain healthy. I want to be able to confidently say that I took care of myself—mind and body—until my final days. Because one day there will be an end, and I'd like to be able to remember it.