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My Battle With Alzheimer’s: Mind, Body, Meds

The former columnist describes his strategy against the enemy, which he dubs 'Al'

(This article, the third in a series, appeared previously in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Read part one here and part two here. The writer is a retired sports columnist for the newspaper.)

The secret to having a long life, a doctor once told me, is choosing your parents very carefully.

He wasn’t kidding.

Diet? Of course.

Exercise? Who doesn’t know that?

Fight the good fight, gain a tie, a standoff, and hope there's a cure just around the bend. The goal is to make [Alzheimer's] retreat.

Avoid stress? Well, duh.

Don’t smoke? Well, double duh.

But for a gold-plated pass through the Pearly Gates, nothing beats having a flourishing family tree whose roots, generation after generation, are flush with a robust DNA that is passed faithfully along.

I’m hoping the good doctor nailed it, because two of my grandparents reached 95, and my mother passed when she was just two months shy of 100. As of this writing, I am 78.

And blessed with good health, which is key, because there’s a big difference between living long and living well.

Mostly Lucky

I’m fortunate to have for the most part avoided hospitals and doctors. My tonsils were removed 70 years ago, I had one painful bout with shingles, and there have been seven procedures for skin cancer. I also dodged several bullets, any one of which could have done me in, including reckless driving, a fondness for the drink, which my liver has forgiven, and the monumental stupidity of them all — smoking (also forgiven, by my lungs).

All in all, a most lucky person I am. And eternally grateful.

I consume red meat and eggs and ice cream with shameful impunity (thank you, DNA) and my vital signs — blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. — all test normal.

My daughter-in-law, a nurse and true angel of mercy, said: “You’d be the picture of health if it wasn’t for the Alzheimer’s.”

Oh yeah, my nemesis. That.

Shut up, Al.

Remember: Adjust. Adapt. Concede nothing.

Stem the Tide

In the military, it’s called a holding action. Defend your ground. That is the accepted strategy for fighting Alzheimer’s: Fight the good fight, gain a tie, a standoff, and hope there’s a cure just around the bend. The goal is to make Al retreat.

But how to do this? Exercise, physical exercise. [See this Next Avenue article.]

You don’t have to bench-press a truck, just anything that gets the moving parts moving. The best one is the simplest one: walking. I get out there five to six days a week, 30 to 40 minutes at a time. Hills are a bonus.

I joined, for a time, the jogging craze. But I am not built for that — you could hear me coming a block away, heavy treads sounding like a rhino plowing through the bush, tongue at half-mast while dedicated joggers, built like jockeys, passed effortlessly by. I figured I was heading to a knee transplant. Or a hip replacement. Or both. So I settled for a more humane and forgiving gait.

The other day, as I was panting and puffing my way to the finish, a neighbor called out: “I can remember when you used to run up that hill.”

“Yes, George,” I said, “and pretty soon I’ll be crawling up it.”

Then there’s mental exercise. Engage the brain, which is, by the way, said to be the biggest sex organ in your body. Make of that what you will. I have a fondness for crossword puzzles. And since I am strikingly lacking in the nether world of computers, I play solitaire on my laptop, attempting to better my time with each electronic deal.

So then, physical exercise, mental exercise, and —.

Bill Lyon and His Meds

We are a pill-happy society. For years I watched in horror as my wife doled out her daily ration. I wanted no part of it.

And then along came Al to slap away my smugness. Turns out there are drugs out there that seem to help stem the tide. So now I’m up to three pills, each taken once a day. They don’t cure Alzheimer’s, but they slow the spread, buy some time . . . some precious time.

When a third pill, an ominous midnight green, was added to my two others, to the surprise and delight of me and that man in the white lab coat, I not only stood my ground, I took a step forward. He wrote:

“The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s remains the same. Today’s assessment showed some stability and even some improvement in some of the cognitive tests.”

So I actually took a step forward. Hot damn!

OK, a step. A small step, to be sure. But a shred of hope. A sliver of a reversal. Still, there was that one golden moment, the tide was stemmed . . . yes, only for a little while, but we take our victories where we can find them.

Take that, Al, you SOB.

Lookin’ Good

Thanks to those genes, and wrinkles, crinkles and furrows aside, I haven’t changed all that much as I have aged. I don’t say this out of vanity. Friends who haven’t seen me in a while say it.

“Hey, you’re lookin’ good.”

I blush. Secretly I give in to ego. Damn right. I’m working at it, every day.

I am closing in on 80. A friend of mine calls it the last exit. He is 82.

We both have our hair, through no fault of our own, and it’s not white, although I envy those who have a mane of silver. It imparts distinction, I think.

I am 6-foot-3, give or take, and 219 pounds, give or take. All things considered, I feel I have been kissed by an angel.

There is the nightly nuisance of surrendering to a persistent bladder urge and, even after all these years, knowing that when I have to go I really have to go — and yet I’m never quite sure when I’m done. I am reminded by my wife, frequently, that Depends are our friends.

I awaken each morning — thank you for that — and gingerly swing my legs over the side and down to the floor. It sounds like the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Slowly I stand upright, and this sound is like milk being poured on cereal . . . snap . . . crackle . . . pop . . . .

And so another day is launched and it sure does beat the alternative.

What, I inquire of my body, new surprises do you have in store for us today?

Not you, Al, not you.

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