When and how did you find out your mother had dementia?
It was 2011 and we had taken a trip to the Cleveland Clinic to get to the root of my mom’s cognitive troubles. It was there that for the first time she was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative condition and was prescribed drugs for both Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Googling the drugs, I discovered that neither of them had any disease-modifying effect, relegating my mom to a fate of wait-and-see. That was the moment I realized my purpose was to find a better way for her and others like her.
Were there any treatments that had a positive effect?
None, at least from a pharmacological standpoint. I believe exercise helped her, both by slowing the progression of her disease but also by supporting her mental health through her struggles.
How were you able to cope with the difficulty of watching her personality change right before your eyes?
It was incredibly difficult. I credit exercise, regular sauna use, cold water immersion, and a solid nutrition foundation for my perseverance through the turmoil.
How did your mom’s condition alter the trajectory of your life—and how has it motivated you?
Because of my mom, I’ve been motivated to learn and share all I can about nutrition, fitness, and the prevention of chronic disease. As a result, I’ve been able to co-author clinical guidance for the practice of dementia prevention, write three internationally best-selling nutrition books, and launch a podcast called “The Genius Life” which is now listened to by millions around the world. I’m excited to debut my documentary, Little Empty Boxes, about my mom’s struggle and the science of dementia prevention, sometime in 2023.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned about yourself in the process of helping your mother go through it all?I realized my own innate gift for gathering and synthesizing complex health science. Whether it’s through writing, speaking, podcasting, or creating visual Instagram content, distilling actionable, accessible, and achievable science for people has become my life’s purpose.
When she passed away, did you feel a sense of peace and closure because you had done everything you could to research what she was experiencing? What were the emotions of trying to say goodbye to her?I felt immense grief over the loss of the person I loved most in the world and wished I could have done more to help her. But I also felt at peace in the sense that her suffering was over.
What words of advice do you have for people with loved ones who are suffering from dementia?Take care of yourself, and set a positive example. Life is hard for someone with dementia, so don’t make it harder. And practice compassionate communication. It can be tempting to want to tease out “correctness” from your loved one with memory loss, which is a form of denial. “Therapeutic fibbing”—i.e. entering their reality and just going along—is often the kinder response and can help your loved one feel safe.
You’ve raised a lot of awareness about how preventing Alzheimer’s is as much lifestyle as genetics. In what ways can diet and exercise help, and why do you think they get so overlooked?
Diet and lifestyle can dramatically help. Lancet estimates that 40% of dementia cases are potentially preventable, and half of the modifiable risk factors are influenced by diet and/or exercise. They get overlooked because they aren’t the easy, magic pill that everyone wants. They take work, discipline, and patience, especially today. But small steps add up big time where the brain is concerned.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about dementia?
That it is genetic, or destined as a natural part of getting older. Only 1% of Alzheimer’s cases are attributable to deterministic genes, the vast majority are influenced by our choices. We may be deciding our cognitive fate with every bite that we take.
How do you see Sollis contributing to your health journey?
Having immediate access to care and expedited access to specialists when you need them is really invaluable.
Any good words to live by?