David Suzuki is intimately acquainted with Alzheimer’s.
His mother, Setsu Nakamura, and four of her siblings died with the progressive mental deterioration disease, prompting the scientist to take an uncharacteristically personal look in a special episode of The Nature of Things.
He opens up about the toll his mother’s struggle took on his father, and finding him weeping with despair. He looks at the current science and thinking about the disease, as well as new possible causes and treatments, through the lens of his own family history.
The Star spoke with Suzuki about living with a higher-than-average risk of dementia and thoughts of the future for our society. The following has been edited for length.
Was it a difficult decision to be public about your family history?
As a public figure people pretty well know everything about my life. If it will give some relief or comfort to people, then I’m happy to do that.
The simulation of Alzheimer’s you experience in the episode is eye-opening.
That was shocking to me. It gave me an insight into the fact that we assume they’re just like us, you just have to shout louder to finally get through to them, not realizing the extent to which their perception is completely changed around.
What was it like for you, living with the reality of the disease and the toll it takes on caregivers?
I’m grateful to my mother, because her dementia gave me a father I never realized I had. My dad was always the typical upfront Japanese guy. My mom was very quiet and did all the work in the family and dad took all the credit for it. He was Mr. Personality. Everyone loved my dad.
So as my mother lost interest in taking care of the clothing, cooking, laundry, I said, “Dad I’ll get someone to come in and give you daytime relief.” And he said “No, your mother gave her life up to me and it’s my turn to give back to her.” I was astounded the way my dad came around and devoted himself to her in the last years of her life.
At 77, do you fear Alzheimer’s is in your future?
Not really. My mother (died at) 74, so it set in four or five years before that. If I get it, I get it. People ask “Why don’t you get a test and see if you are carrying the genes?” But what’s the point? Of course at my age you worry. I’m terrible at names in the best of times. Now I go “What the heck, I know that guy. What’s his name?” When words start going, you begin to wonder. So far, I seem to be holding it all together.
What do you do to stave off the disease?
At my age the best medicine is exercise. I try to get to the gym and work out. You look at things like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, stroke, heart disease — the most effective thing at reducing your risk is exercise.
What role does diet play?
My wife just got this amazing book called The China Study Book. It’s a study of the Chinese epidemiologically. What came out just overwhelmingly is that for your health and wellbeing, get on to vegetables. The author started out (in) a meat-eating gung-ho way of living. This guy ended up a vegan.
Are there environmental factors today that make us more susceptible?
In my heart of hearts I think so. I simply don’t know the data on that. The fact is that we’re poisoning the air, water and soil, so every one of us is carrying dozens and dozens of toxic chemicals. If that doesn’t have an effect on the brain I’d be astounded.
Does the research on Alzheimer’s give you hope?
I’m not holding my breath. Enormous things are happening now, especially in imaging studies that allow you to study a living brain. Whether ultimately in my lifetime that’s going to result in some kind of treatment, I’m very skeptical. I think we have to live with it.
I just learned that Norway has a way of integrating people with Alzheimer’s where they’re really useful and part of the community. And apparently the people respond very well. We’re in for a tidal wave of Alzheimer’s as the population ages. We should be looking at all the ways we can keep people with the problem integrated with society as long as we can.
Warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease
According to a 2011 Alzheimer Society of Canada poll, 50 percent of Canadian baby boomers identified memory loss as the only sign of Alzheimer’s disease, while a quarter couldn’t name any sign at all. Do you know what the signs are? Memory loss isn’t the only sign.
- Forgetting recent events or having difficulty retaining new information
- Difficulty performing familiar tasks, such as preparing a meal or shopping
- Language problems; finding the right words or using inappropriate words
- Disorientation; getting lost on the way to work or being confused about the time of day
- Poor or decreased judgment; neglecting personal hygiene or safety
- Problems with abstract thinking; difficulty balancing a cheque book or not understanding what the numbers mean
- Misplacing things; putting things in odd places like storing an iron in the fridge
- Behavioural changes; sharp mood swings, from calm to tears to depression that are hard to explain
- Personality changes; becoming unusually withdrawn, suspicious or anxious
Source: Alzheimer Society of Canada