Susan Lake refused to accept the doctor's grave prognosis for her mother Lorrie. Here's how she brought her mum back from dementia
In every other regard, it was an ordinary evening. Susan Lake had decided to take her 77-year-old mother Lorraine Steinberg to Harvest Bistro, her favourite restaurant hangout near her home in northern California.
"That sounds great," Lorrie said over the phone. "Where is the Harvest Bistro?"
"It's near your home," said Susan. "On King's Road."
"Where is King's Road?" Her mother had been driving along this road, which was just eight blocks from her home, for decades.
Susan was shocked by her mother's gross lapses in memory. Alarmed, she rushed over to her house, but once she got there, Lorrie not only couldn't remember much of that telephone conversation, but also seemed confused about lots of other things too. The last time Susan had seen her mother-just a few weeks before-she'd been fine. Although she had a number of physical problems, including an underactive thyroid and severe osteoporosis causing a great deal of back and knee pain, mentally she'd always been very articulate with a sharp memory. What on earth had happened?
After that evening, Lorrie started getting worse by the day, forgetting every conversation just a few minutes after she'd finished it. Not long after, she turned to
Susan one night with great puzzlement and asked: "Who are you?"
When Susan brought Lorrie to see her doctor of many years, he told her that her mother was just getting old, and that she would simply have to accept that nothing could be done for her memory and cognitive function. Susan was determined to resist this grim prognosis. And a nursing home or moving in with Susan or her siblings was completely out of the question-her mother had always made it clear she wanted to stay in her own home and not burden her children.
Some years before, Susan had had intravenous chelation therapy to clear her body of heavy metals and, during the procedure, she'd remembered a number of people saying that chelation therapy helped improve their memory. "I was wondering if something like chelation would help restore my mother's memory by increasing the circulation throughout her body and her brain," said Susan.
She also wanted a second opinion on her mother's hypoactive thyroid. Her current doctor had insisted on lowering her thyroid medication and she seemed exhausted all the time, some days only dragging herself out of bed at noon.
After much searching, Susan found Dr Martin Collingsworth (not his real name), a doctor of integrative medicine who believed he might be able to help with all of Lorrie's problems, including her severe osteoporosis. During the first consultation, Dr Collingsworth confirmed that Lorrie had progressive dementia and low thyroid function not being adequately dealt with by her current thyroid medication.
He carried out a batch of tests on her and concluded it was likely that Lorrie had suffered some small, undetected strokes, which may have caused the sudden deterioration in cognitive function.
The tests also revealed that Lorrie was severely depleted in minerals and circulating hormones, and had severe candidiasis-an overgrowth of the yeast in the bowel. Besides causing a number of digestive problems, Candida overgrowth can also wreak havoc with memory and concentration. Other test results showed certain clear food sensitivities to yeast and yeast products, baked goods, sugar and dairy products.
Dr Collingsworth explained that such low levels of both minerals and hormones were contributing to the brittle bones and cognitive problems. He also suspected that, like many elderly people, Lorrie's stomach acid secretion was less than optimal and so was interfering with absorption of nutrients. Dr Collingsworth put Lorrie on pancreatic enzymes and hydrochloric acid supplements to bolster her digestive stomach acid and enzyme system, and also started her on twice-daily mid-morning and mid-afternoon smoothies of rice milk and a formula called All One, a nutritional protein powder derived from rice and especially rich in antioxidants, trace minerals, and vitamins C and B; B vitamins, said the doctor, are often very helpful for rectifying problems associated with dementia, and the twice-daily smoothies would deliver nutrients in a way that Lorrie could more easily assimilate. He also had her take some additional supplements containing antioxidants and minerals with her smoothies.
Although Dr Collingsworth believed that Lorrie's fragile system might not be able to handle chelation, he wanted to "help her depleted system get up-and-running faster" with 15- to 20-minute intravenous infusions of vitamin C and vitamins B3 (thiamine), B6 and B12-all good brain food-initially administering the infusions weekly
and then gradually offering them every three weeks.
Dr Collingsworth also prescribed a higher dose of natural thyroid supplement and low doses of bioidentical hormones, including progesterone cream, DHEA (the neurosteroid dehydroepiandrosterone, plus form of testosterone and a natural oestrogen. Finally, he added glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM (methylsulphonylmethane) supplements and flax seed oil to Lorrie's daily regime to help tackle her knee pain.
Next, Dr Collingsworth changed Lorrie's diet, removing all items she showed a sensitivity to, particularly those containing sugar. Susan had noticed that Lorrie had begun to eat more junk food and, as she later learned, researchers have called Alzheimer's disease and dementia 'the third diabetes' because those with such conditions often suffer insulin resistance in the brain (see WDDTY February 2014).
"She was secretly becoming a sugar addict," said Susan, "hiding boxes of sweets throughout her house, so that no one would realize the extent of her consumption."
To satisfy Lorrie's sweet tooth, Dr Collingsworth suggested that Susan use stevia, xylitol and foods sweetened with fruit juices, and avoid both sugar and artificial sweeteners. He also recommended that, with the exception of eggs, which could be eaten at any time, Lorrie be limited to plant-based dietary protein three days a week, with animal protein given on the other four days. All food was to be cooked in glass, ceramic or enamel-coated cast iron, while all pots made of aluminium, which has been linked with Alzheimer's disease, were to be strictly avoided.
Susan launched Lorrie on this strict regime, calling in at her mother's house a few times a day and sticking Post-it notes all over her refrigerator and kitchen cabinets to remind her mother about timings. Even though Lorrie usually forgot why she was taking the supplements, she remembered enough to know she had a problem with her memory, and that the drinks and pills would help to recover it, so for that reason alone, she was eager to comply.
Susan had little expectation of success; after all, Lorrie had forgotten about the first consultation with Dr Collingsworth the moment they'd left his office. But at the very least, the regime would give her energy levels and immune system a needed boost. And after two months, Lorrie did show some evidence of increased energy levels and alertness, particularly after drinking her smoothies.
Besides nutritional deficiencies, Lorrie's memory was most profoundly affected by stress. As Susan was to discover, if her mother had any kind of prolonged anxiety, her memory would plummet, as it would if she were worried about anything or anyone. Any type of illness worse than a cold also seemed to affect her ability to think clearly. But a sense of helplessness had the worst effect of all, so Susan learned that some of the most important medicine was to help her mother feel independent and empowered.
The first true breakthrough came almost three months to the day after they'd started the programme while in consultation with Dr Collingsworth. Lorrie was describing a meal she'd had the night before at a new restaurant and, to Susan's amazement, was able to remember the decor of the restaurant and even the surly attitude of the waiter. She was finally remembering! Once they'd left the doctor's office, Susan paid a visit to the restaurant to satisfy her own curiosity about the episode and, in fact, all the details her mother had recounted-from the menu to the interior design of the restaurant-were correct.
"Her mind would not have retained this information even a few weeks before," said Susan. "The programme was working!"
Although Lorrie was improving, she still had issues with her osteoporosis, which was so severe that her chin was almost level with her collarbone. One night, Lorrie went out at night with her walker and fell face down. It was two hours before one of her neighbours, a night worker, discovered her lying on top of a gutter.
There was also the fact that she was again indulging in her guilty pleasure, sneaking foods with added sugar, which seemed to have an immediate adverse effect on her memory. Even a few sugary desserts had a big impact on her ability to remember.
Susan decided to hire a live-in caregiver for Lorrie, eventually employing Catalina, who proved to be a fantastic boon. Not only did she keep Lorrie physically safe and help her stick to the dietary programme, but she also provided a good deal of stimulation, taking her out every day for walks, drives and to the movies. At the time of her first consultation with Dr Collingsworth, Lorrie had been barely able to walk half a block, but not long after Catalina's arrival, she was regularly walking six blocks a day.
Catalina's greatest contribution was to help reignite many of Lorrie's girlhood passions. As a young woman, Lorrie had been a pianist and opera singer who'd studied at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, but like many married women in the 1950s, she believed she had to give up her career to be a good wife and mother and, although she'd attended many operas, she hadn't played or sung music for more than 50 years.
One day when Susan paid her mother a visit, she came upon Lorrie sight-reading a piece of sheet music, holding it in one hand while playing a fairly complicated passage rapidly with the other hand and singing along.
"It was like a miracle," said Susan. "Three months after 'Are you one of my daughters?', she was playing and singing arias!"
The knee pain was improving too. While X-rays taken a few years before showed only a tiny amount of cartilage in her knee and mostly bone on bone, X-rays taken a year later showed that the cartilage in her knees had measurably thickened.
Lorrie's improvement carried on for six more years. She continued to play and sing music, and go to restaurants and visit friends accompanied by Catalina. During her training as a singer in her youth, she'd also learned several foreign languages, and with her rekindled interest in music, she began to practise speaking the Italian, French and Russian she'd learned in her youth.
In late December 2001, aged 83, Lori developed an infection that wouldn't heal, which eventually turned into meningitis and claimed her life.
Nevertheless, Susan feels grateful she was able to help her mother enjoy the final years of her life so fully; she also learned so much in her own quest to help her mother than she now offers help to others with relatives suffering with memory loss and dementia.
"I never imagined she would spend her final years singing and playing the piano, speaking some languages that she had learned sixty years before and going to the movies twice a week," says Susan. "After watching Mum return to her singing and music, I know that much of the loneliness, isolation, depression and helplessness that can precede and accompany dementia can be replaced by an overall pattern of improvement.
"If my mother, who had a complicated health situation, could have as much improvement as she did, then it looks promising for others."
Senile dementia is not as inevitable as many people might imagine: between 25 and 50 per cent of people over 85 are spared it, and many more might too if they knew the basic principles of prevention and treatment, says Susan. "The old belief that every mind and body must deteriorate with age may someday be seen as an ancient superstition."
Different forms of dementia
Although dementia and Alzheimer's tend to be used interchangeably, dementia is actually an umbrella term for many types of conditions-with different causes-that rob their victims of memory and cognition.
Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia, is defined as physical damage to the brain in old age, resulting in major changes to reasoning, memory, personality and behaviour. Until recently, the only way to distinguish Alzheimer's from other types of dementia was by post-mortem examination of the brain. A typical AD brain is usually partly atrophied (shrunken), with a buildup of proteins that clump together in what are called 'beta-amyloid 'plaques', which surround healthy nerve cells, and 'neurofibrillary tangles', which develop inside the neurons and eventually replace them. Without these brain lesions, the condition isn't true Alzheimer's.
The second most common type of dementia is vascular dementia, where victims suffer an interruption of the brain's blood supply. This is usually due to 'mini-strokes', which cause brain cells to die.
These two conditions can now sometimes be distinguished from each other by brain scans using either magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or positron emission tomography (PET).
The second brain
A fundamental aspect of Lorrie's recovery was improving her digestive system. Scientists often refer to the gut as a 'second brain', and now they've discovered why. New research at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and University College Cork in Ireland has demonstrated that the 'good-guy' bacteria in your gut produces thousands of chemicals, many of which, such as serotonin, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and dopamine, are necessary for proper signalling in the brain.
In lab studies, mice bred with no exposure to these friendly bacteria have deficiencies in memory and emotion, and even display autistic behaviours; when their brains are examined, they're found to have changes in fundamental brain chemistry, including a lack of certain molecules like neurotrophic factor proteins which are essential for forming new connections in the brain.
Other studies show that mice suffering from anxiety have different gut flora than do healthy mice. When scientists looked closer, they discovered that these good-guy bacteria change the expression of certain receptors in the brain via the vagus nerve, the superhighway between the gut and the brain, and also via the immune system.
Researchers have carried out preliminary studies suggesting that a variety of these friendly bacteria may help treat a number of different kinds of mental illness, including depression, autism and anxiety, at least in animals.
John Cryan, professor of neuroscience, and Timothy Dinan, professor of psychiatry, and both at University College Cork involved in the research, are among the vanguard studying the effects of 'psychobiotics' on humans. They're currently looking at the gut flora of patients with severe depression to see if they are significantly altered; the team is also launching a study using the probiotic Lactobacillus brevis to treat anxiety in healthy volunteers.
Both recommend 'cocktails' of bacteria as likely to be more effective than single strains; such cocktails include those present in fermented milk products like kefir (see WDDTY February 2014).
What else to try
Besides the programme adopted by Lorrie, consider making these lifestyle changes:
Banish sugar.Before her treatment, Lorrie was a sugarholic, which may have aggravated her condition, as processed foods are increasingly implicated in dementia and Alzheimer's.
Be stimulated.Do crossword puzzles, play games like Sudoku or Monopoly and watch or read whodunits-anything that keeps your mind engaged.
Feel inspired and uplifted.Listen to beautiful music or watch powerfully affecting films.
Get connected.As Susan Lake puts it, "Positive companionship is vital to strengthening a fragile mind... Many people start going off the 'deep end' if they feel useless or unwanted."
Stay uncluttered.Orderly spaces can help those with memory challenges and prevent them from feeling overwhelmed.
Remove amalgam fillings,which have been implicated in dementia, but only use a dentist highly experienced in the proper procedure.
Identify allergiesand food sensitivities and address them. These can also cause brain fog.
Get your hearing and vision tested.Both affect cognition.
Stay in the light.Susan hears from many correspondents who say that spending more time in light-filled rooms helps their memory.
Additional help for dementia
Susan Lake, a practising hypnotherapist, wrote Bringing Mom Back from Dementia to help other families with a loved one suffering from dementia. To get hold of your copy of the book or to contact her, visit her website: