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Someone left the keys in the refrigerator.

I was enjoying my breakfast and perusing the sports section in our dining room the other day when the smoke alarm in the hallway outside the kitchen began chirping. This used to happen quite regularly for no apparent reason, so I was casually mopping up the last of my eggs as My Lovely Wife stormed out of the bathroom to draw my attention to the billowing smoke issuing from the frying pan on the stove. I’d left the burner on.

We threw open the windows, cranked up the range-hood vent, and an hour or so later the smoke had dissipated. Days later, I’m still processing the ramifications.

When you reach a certain age, even the most benign brain fart tends to trigger dire premonitions of looming cognitive dysfunction. MLW and I often joke about these moments of forgetfulness or distraction (“It’s just going to get more entertaining . . .”), but this was no minor miscue. Cleaning up the abused frying pan later, I couldn’t help wondering, Am I really starting to lose it?

It’s a common lament here in Geezerville, where some 5.8 million seniors suffer from some degree of dementia. And, despite an abundance of incentive and resources, scientists have spent years searching in vain for a cure. Theories abound, most of them focusing on the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaque on the brain, but a new study from Brigham Young University offers a more novel conclusion. Researchers there argue that plaque is not the cause of Alzheimer’s; it’s a side effect of a metabolic dysfunction that leads to cognitive distress. More notably, they say we may be able to control it with diet and lifestyle changes.

“Alzheimer’s Disease is increasingly being referred to as insulin resistance of the brain or type 3 diabetes,” says senior study author Benjamin Bikman, PhD. “Our research shows there is likely a lifestyle origin to the disease, at least to some degree.”

Bikman and his team conducted a postmortem analysis of RNA sequences in the brains of 240 Alzheimer’s patients, focusing on how the genes of nervous system support cells functioned during glucose and ketolytic metabolism. The brain needs the fuel that both of these molecules provide to operate at peak efficiency, but researchers found the brains of their subjects were unable to effectively use its glucose supply. And, because the carb-rich standard American diet produces far more glucose in the body than protein-sourced ketones, insulin levels tend to soar and gradually overwhelm the brain’s ability to employ the glucose it needs to function properly.

“The inability to use glucose increases the value of ketones. However, because the average person is eating insulin-spiking foods so frequently, there’s never any ketones available to the brain,” Bikman explains. “I look at these findings as a problem we’ve created and that we’re making worse.”

In other words, it’s not the plaque accumulation that causes Alzheimer’s, it’s simply a sign that the brain isn’t metabolizing glucose efficiently at the cellular level. And, if Bikman’s results hold true in subsequent larger studies, he believes we may someday be able to mitigate symptoms of the disease by curbing our carb intake and adding more protein-rich foods to our diet.

In light of my narrowly averted kitchen disaster, I find this both hopeful and slightly ironic. If I’m careening down the road toward some cognitive disorder, I much prefer shifting my behavior to popping some pills. But I can’t help but note that I started that star-crossed morning with a moderate workout and my usual protein-packed breakfast. Sometimes, I suppose, it’s less about metabolism than mindfulness.

Craig Cox
Craig Cox

Craig Cox is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of healthy aging.

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