Three years ago, filmmaker Max Lugavere started noticing that his mother was having trouble with her cognition. After seeking out top neurologists in an attempt to diagnose the memory loss she was experiencing, he was left frustrated by the experience. Lugavare's findings—and the big questions they inspired—made him want to better understand the disease that affects 45 million people across the globe.
More than five million Americans currently live with Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia. According to future projections by the Alzheimer's Institute, that number could triple by the year 2050.
And Lugavere wants to do something about it.
Rather than setting out to create another Debbie Downer film about the realities of dementia, Lugavere got busy investigating the ways in which science labs and clinics are helping to positively shape the future of this disease, which he highlights in his upcoming documentary Bread Head. But the most remarkable thing about Lugavere is that he sincerely believes that we can actually shift our own brain fates through mindful eating and proper exercise.
MUNCHIES sat down with him to discuss his documentary and get his diagnosis on what steps we should be taking to ward off dementia.
MUNCHIES: What's the story behind the documentary's title, Bread Head? Max Lugavere: After the initial trauma of having to accept this new reality [of my mom's diagnosis]—and having been a health science junkie my whole life—I became obsessed with digging up the latest thinking on how diet and lifestyle affect brain health, both to help her and to optimize my own brain health. I focused on Alzheimer's, the most common form of the disease, and learned that changes can begin in the brain decades before the first symptom. I also stumbled upon the relatively new idea that, for many people, Alzheimer's and other dementias may be preventable (at least one in three patients, according to the August 2014 Lancet Neurology).
Though the film is not meant to specifically demonize bread, I picked the name Bread Head because it is the perfect example of a highly processed food masquerading as a health staple. A slice of whole grain bread has a higher glycemic index (the measurement of how quickly a carbohydrate spikes your blood sugar) than that of table sugar! It's also—believe it or not—America's number-one source of dietary sodium, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which in many people can contribute to hypertension—a player in vascular dementia, the second-most common form of dementia. Lastly, it contains gluten, which has interesting implications on gut health, and the gut-brain axis is a fascinating and burgeoning field of interest. It's the perfect spokesmodel for what to avoid or at least eat in moderation if you're seeking optimal health.
Epigenetics is an interesting pathway to discuss what humans are doing wrong with our health by studying our diets. Can you explain a few of your thoughts on that? The field of epigenetics very simply proposes that our genes are not our destiny. I've gotten countless emails from people my age around the world who are terrified of Alzheimer's disease because they're seeing it in their parents or grandparents for the first time and wrongly believe that it's a hereditary disease. The point I'd like to drive home is that you can alter your gene expression by way of the choices you make. Our genes are merely notes on a keyboard—it's we who dictate the song that's played. That's the promise of epigenetics and it's awesome.
For example, the largest genetic risk factor for Alzheimer's disease can be negated simply by exercising, according to one study.
Since you started this project, how has your diet and lifestyle shifted, if at all? I used to believe that the more whole grains I ate, the better my health would be. Until I learned that when you really look into what's called the glycemic index, whole grains aren't that much better for you than non-whole grains. And the idea that we should just be eating tons of carbs, no matter the source—fruit, whole grains, whatever—is ludicrous when you learn about glycation. When you brown a steak on the BBQ, for example, that browning, searing process is glycation. The more sugar you have in your blood, and the longer the duration, the more that process is happening to you. It promotes aging, it's inflammatory, and chronic elevated blood sugar is associated with insulin resistance. It's just bad. So I've switched my diet to a low-carb, higher healthy-fat diet. By the way, fructose (common in fruit) has ten times the glycating potential of glucose.
You're clearly not a bio-hacker, but I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the movement. Is there anything that we can learn from them—like the Bulletproof Coffee guy—to improve our well-being? I like the movement, but I don't use the term to describe myself. To me, getting a system to function at its most optimal point is not hacking it—it's optimizing it. The butter/coffee/coconut oil recipe is delicious and the fat does slow down the absorption of the coffee (as it does when you add fat to anything), which is helpful for me because I often drink it on an empty stomach in the morning. I like intermittent fasting, and though I don't frequently test myself, I'd imagine that when I wake up in the morning I'm in mild ketosis (good for brain health) and the fact that you're consuming only fats keeps you there. Plus MCTs, found in coconut oil, are great, as is vitamin K2 (decalcifies arteries), which is abundant in grass-fed butter.
Do you have any advice for young people based on what you have learned during this journey? Take ownership over your health. Don't be afraid to look into your genes, and know that risks are merely that. Take care of your brain because changes, according to the research, begin now (the oldest millennial is now 35 years old).
Makes sense. Thanks for speaking to us, Max.