Ending Alzheimer’s & Dementia, with Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D. | EDB 145

Dr. Hackie Reitman continues his conversation with Age Wave CEO & Founder Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D.

Over the past 35+ years, Dr. Ken Dychtwald has emerged as North America’s foremost visionary and original thinker regarding the lifestyle, marketing, health care, and workforce implications of the “age wave”. Ken is a psychologist, gerontologist, and best-selling author of 16 books on aging-related issues, including Bodymind; Age Wave: The Challenges and Opportunities of an Aging SocietyAge Power: How the 21st Century Will Be Ruled by the New OldThe Power Years: A User’s Guide to the Rest of Your LifeHealthy Aging;Workforce Crisis: How to Beat the Coming Shortage of Skills and TalentGideon’s Dream: A Tale of New Beginnings and, most recently, A New Purpose: Redefining Money, Family, Work, Retirement, and Success. He is currently writing a new book, Destiny Knocks: Lessons From an Irregular Life. He was the executive producer and host of the highly rated/acclaimed PBS documentary, The Boomer Century: 1946–2046.

Ken discusses the challenges with preventing dementia, the mission of Age Wave to help the aging brain, and why he feels Alzheimer’s needs to be solved in a lab. (26 minutes)

For more about Ken and Age Wave, visit: http://agewave.com/


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HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR): Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman. Welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains. Today we have returning one of my heroes. Ken Dychtwald, Age Wave. He’s got it all about how we age. We’re positive and we’re moving forward. Ken, welcome.

KEN DYCHTWALD, Ph.D. (KD): Great to be with you.

HR: The problem I ran into recently. I was giving a plenary talk at Washington DC at the the first ever Down Syndrome Summit and there was a reason it was the first ever. It was because their life expectancy was twenties; now it’s 60. So now there’s dementia and everything else. So my friend Seth Keller who’s really a hero of mine. He’s co-chair of the National Task Force on dementia and Alzheimer’s and I went to his workshop there, and I said , “You know, Seth, I’m 68. My dad died of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and I had 26 pro heavyweight fights and I played rugby for 11 years, so I’m the poster boy to be at risk for dementia, and what do you do?” and he said, “Really, we’re not doing a whole lot different than we did when Alzheimer’s was discovered in some ways, you know,” so I was going to write a book. I was going to write a book on like I wrote the Aspertools on Asperger’s/autism neurodiversity, because by the time I finish the book I know it was all the same stuff so I started to write a book on Almost Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Like I an went for an evaluation. I got an MRI that was normal.

KD: It was normal?

HR: It was normal, surprisingly.

KD: No, that’s great.

HR: And then the 5-minute neuropsych test was okay so I didn’t do the big one, but there’s not a lot of hard, hard science tools that really work, which is what I’m into. Other than socialism things that make good sense, things that are being thrown away the most important. Strong social relationships. The other things, it somewhat makes sense, what with the exercise, the training plan, style, diet, you know one of the things I have a big problem with getting rid of is stress, which is big, big, big, and mindfulness in all of that. But in the aging population, and you’re one of the world’s authorities, where does this enter into the calculus?

KD: It’s a great question, Hackie, so let me try to explain this in a way that’s that’s digestible because it’s a little confusing. Up until about 20 years ago, we didn’t know much of anything about the aging brain or even the brain. I remember people we referred to as being senile. It was just sort of a grab bag phrase, I mean, old people are senile, and we thought all old people get senile; that’s just what happens with age. Even though the word Alzheimer’s been around longer than that, it’s really only been about the last 10 years that we are starting to kind of map out how the aging brain works. And I would have to tell you.

In a moment I’ll explain in more detail, but in the last six years I’ve been interacting with some of the world’s great neuroscientists and I hear them explain healthy aging brain, the unhealthy aging brain, and they all, they’re not even in agreement, so it’s still kind of a fuzzy, funky zone. But here’s generally the idea. That I went to hear, about two months ago, a speech by George Schultz in San Francisco. He’s 97 years old. He was the secretary of everything under like every president, going back to George Washington, I think. He was clear as a bell. It was unbelievable. He remembered every meeting, every situation, with Nixon, Reagan, tear down that wall, Watergate, he just, it was unbelievable. I felt like I was in a science fiction novel and I’m seeing a centenarian with a healthy brain. One of the things that people started realizing about 10-15 years ago is that there is a healthy brain and then there’s a brain with disease. They’re not the same. We can try to imagine a future where we live 80, 90, 100 years with healthy brains, healthy minds. There’s some with the belief that there are, there’s cognitive impairment as we grow older. Let’s think of that as sort of the big pool. Cognitive impairment may be you don’t remember things quite as well, your moods may roll around in the wrong direction, you don’t sleep as well, tired at night, you can’t quite sleep, so there is this fuzzy zone, and we all struggle with cognitive impairment as we get older. I’ve heard some people say it’s because of the loss of neurons as we age. I’ve heard other people say it’s because we don’t exercise and breathe enough and eat healthy diets, that I’ve heard a pretty good argument in the last few years that a lot of that cognitive impairment could be averted. Within cognitive impairment there’s what’s called dementia. Turns out that mentions a bunch of different kinds of things. Robin Williams had what’s called Louie Body dementia. It’s a certain kind of dementia linked up with Parkinson’s and depression. Then there’s percussive dementia, guys in the military that are hearing those bombs go off and it’s rattling their brains in their head. That’s a percussive dementia. Then what do we do about that? We’re not sure. By the way, there’s a lot of money being spent in the military to try to figure out the brain. Then there is what’s called vascular dementia. So we got arterial flow into the brain. You’re a doc; I may get this wrong, but if those arteries get clogged just like in your heart or anywhere else, blood’s not going to get into your brain. And therefore, we know a lot about how to have a healthier vascular system. It’s about keeping the proper body weight, eating a low-fat diet, getting sufficient good 30 minutes a day of vigorous exercise, keeping yourself flexible, proper stress management, and sleep, and by doing those kinds of things, you can probably prevent the vascular dementias. I’ve also seen, emerging out of Silicon Valley, lots of software companies coming forward saying that these are apps. Whether it’s Lumosity and there’s others, that by utilizing them you can actually trigger the brain to be more vibrant, more capable, just like exercising a muscle. So then we’ve got the long-lived person and we’ve got some cognitive change.

I also want to point out that there are some people who are now suggesting that the mind gets better with age. What’s called the happiness curve. The people at Stanford have come out with a lot of studies last year saying the actually the happiest people in America right now are between 65 and 80. The people come to terms with their life, they’re more accepting, they’re less anxious, less fear of missing out, that the mind actually becomes more cognitively complex. You know, when you and I were 15, if we’d be having a discussion about this, it would be a pretty simple-minded exercise. Now we’re sort of grown-ups, you and I could probably go into some interesting territory because our minds. We have seen and done and felt a lot in our lives, so some people are arguing that the mind, the older mind, not the diseased older mind, but the older mind is quite a miracle. It’s quite a wonderful thing to behold. Then, within these dementias you got Alzheimer’s. People say it maybe 50 or 60% all the dementias. At least what I’ve seen is that while I’d like to say that “Oh you can beat Alzheimer’s by doing crossword puzzles or by having a, you know, a complex carbohydrate, lots of grain in your diet.” I don’t think so. Here’s the way I think about it, Hack. When I was 30, I collaborated on a book with Jonas Salk, my second book. And one night over dinner, I didn’t know him well and he was a titan of a guy because of having had his soft vaccine breakthrough in 1953, he explained to me that in the 1940s, before we were born, poliomyelitis was rampant. People didn’t quite understand how it worked and so there was a feeling that you caught it from people. You, if you touched strangers, don’t ever touch a stranger, Don’t swim in a public swimming pool during the summer because you’ll catch polio. If somebody’s sweating, don’t let the sweat land on you. Nobody knew what was going on, and there was the belief that in the future, we’re going to need millions of iron lungs. The polio, you can’t stop it, so we just have to put people in iron lungs, and maybe some of your listeners don’t know what that is. It’s like a coffin that you laid in and it breathed, you know, and you laid there and you had a mirror and that’s how you live the rest of your life. Salk said to me, “You know, Ken, I had a totally different point of view. My point of view was we got to stop this thing. We got this disease. We got to turn it off,” and luckily he and then Sabin had their other breakthroughs in the early fifties, and you don’t see polio so much anymore. Alzheimer’s, I think Alzheimer’s got to be beaten in the lab. I think Alzheimer’s gonna have to be beaten by science. My mom got eaten up and taken down by Alzheimer’s. I knew President Reagan. Guy surely had an interesting life. He surely had access to good medical care, and he got eaten up by Alzheimer’s. Margaret Thatcher got eaten up by Alzheimer’s, you know. Who’s the guy was on the Carol Burnett Show? Tim, whatever, it’s just announced last week he’s got Alzheimer’s.

Truth of it is that over the age of 85, 1 in 3 people have Alzheimer’s. Over the age of 90, it’s 1 in 2. You’re going to have to filter this product. This is a s***** disease. This is a s***** disease. This disease could be the sinkhole into which this century falls, because we’re getting better and better and better at keeping people alive longer and longer and longer, but unless we can wipe this disease out, we’re heading for a zombie zone. So there are many of us in the field who are saying, “You know, this is not about ‘we need to be more kind and careful for caregivers.’ We need to be, because being a loving caregiver is a saintly task and role. We need to beef up our scientific creativity and imagination to turn this disease off. If we could do that, if we could somehow create a world without Alzheimer’s, we’ll be having another discussion when we’re a hundred years old, and it’ll be an interesting discussion and we’re going to remember everything we’re talking about today, and we’re going to be talking about great grandkids and the contributions we’ve made to the world. I did a piece for the Harvard Business Review about a decade ago, and I’m not that good a writer but I got lucky and they accepted it, and I won the McKenzie prize that year and they called me up, they said it was the best article of the year, but you’ve tied for first place. I was like, “That’s ok; who did I tie with?” and they said, “96 year-old Peter Drucker, who is the founder of modern management science.” So Mr. Drucker and I had to go to the banquet together. And I’m thinking to myself, “Nan, this guy is 96. He’s done more since he was 65 than rest of us will do in a lifetime.” We can imagine the world without Alzheimer’s; we’re going to see, first of all, intact families, because caregiving can bust up a family and damage relationships. We’re going to see people with more financial well-being, because dementia and diseases of the aging brain could unravel a family’s life savings. We’re going to see the ability to have the dream of history: 5, 6, 7 generations alive at the same time, all interacting, all contributing, all making sense of what the future could be.

So that is a big job there, so that is, first of all, back to your core question, we got to get a little better understanding how the brain works as we age, because even among the best of the best, it’s not terribly sharp right now, but as I’m learning, there’s different conditions and each one may be responsive to different kind of either treatment or prevention or therapy. What my wife and I, her mom also was taken down by Alzheimer’s, our point of view is while we’re hoping and trying to activate a cure, we try to be really careful in what we eat. We try to keep our exercise level strong. We try to keep our, in other words, we try to do the three or four or five right things that everybody tells you will help avert these kinds of brain changes in aging.

HR: Ken Dychtwald, tell us about your latest projects and projects coming up and what’s going on now, because you got so many books and documentaries and awards. Tell us about your latest projects.

KD: Well, I’d say there’s a few things going on. One that you might find interesting and get maybe your listeners and audience would would find interesting is that I’m like a, I’m a sort of a little bit of a renegade guy. I’ve never been a good bureaucrat. I’ve never sort of swum up the center of the highway. I’ve always done things a little bit my own way, and I was getting really, really, really frustrated with the slow pace of science, you know, particularly regarding Alzheimer’s, which I think is the looming challenge of this century. Not because a few people are going to have. It’s because kind of like everybody’s going to have it. I would also tell you that in California where I live, all these billionaire characters, they’re all trying to figure out a way to live forever, but they all know that you might be able to slow down your aging rate or you might be able to, you know, fix your kidneys or something, but I’ll tell you what. If you aren’t able to beat Alzheimer’s disease, that’s not the future you want.

So I heard about about the sinkhole the X Prize. It was started over a decade ago by a physician named Peter Diamandis. Peter is in his 50s, undergraduate and graduate degrees in astrophysics and molecular biology at MIT, while getting his MD at Harvard. He’s one of those guys. Peter and Elon Musk and Craig Venter and Dean Kaman, there is like this crew of these characters. So I heard that I was going to be speaking at a conference, actually in Miami, and Peter Diamandis was going to be the speaker after me. So I kind of cleverly, or whatever, I said to the conference planner, “There’s about a thousand people in the audience. I feel, look, I’d like to go before Diamandis. I’d like to have to insist that Diamandis be in the room during my session, and then I like to have he and I on the stage for an hour afterward, no extra charge.” “Why?” “Because Peter believes that the grand challenges of the world can be solved by going outside the box. He first tried that out having been a young man interested in space. He was taken by the Lindbergh flight and he realized that Lindbergh did that flight as part of a competition, and there was a award, and by flying that distance, he won an award, and then all of a sudden space travel, I mean air travel, just took off.” So Peter said, “You know, I’d like to create a competition to see who can create a vehicle that will go 100 kilometers into space, manned vehicle, back to the Earth, and a week later do it again, no injuries.” And he boldly announce to the world that he was going to pay the winner who could do that 10 million dollars. He didn’t have 10 million dollars.

All of a sudden all over the world, people like to have what’s called gamification. People like to play, so people were coming up with helium balloons and helicopters and rocket ships and airplanes and he went to, you know, people like Branson, you know, Richard Branson, and he said, “How’d you like to fund this? I could use the 10 million dollars.” He said, “No, man. What if somebody goes up there and blows up or gets killed. Terrible. Turns out he already did get 10 million dollars from the Ansari family, a family of Iranians, Americans, who were very successful in tech, and a guy named Burt Routan created this plane-type vehicle, went up, came down, and did it, and the next day Richard Branson bought his company and now it’s Space X has come from that, and space travel. I mean all of commercialization of space is, Elon Musk businesses all grew out of that. And so since then, Peter has been creating grand challenges for all sorts of things. He did one, he put a grand challenge out that Wendy Schmidt funded. She’s the wife of the founder of Google. And the idea was who could clean up oil sludge out of the ocean. And Peter’s belief was that he should go to see the usual experts, and they’re so used to thinking about things the same way, they may not see some other angle. The guy that took a second place for that award were two guys that ran a tattoo parlor in Las Vegas, and they had never actually been to the ocean, but they used to be cement mixers, so that had a feeling for how to work with sludge. And that’s what’s happening with all of these X Prizes. High school kids compete, and mad scientists in India compete, and crazy professors in China jump in. And so I, back, here we are six years ago. I’m on the stage, a thousand people, Diamandis is in the audience, and I said at one point, “Hey, this Age Wave thing that’s coming is really great and then the possibilities are just like a dream. However, I don’t know where you are in this audience,Peter Diamandis, but if you’re so smart, why don’t you create an X Prize to wipe Alzheimer’s out?” I didn’t know that his father also was being taken down by Alzheimer’s. Well, the room got very quiet. Like, imagine yourself at a fight, you know, all sudden, it’s like wait a minute, did that guy on the stage just call out the next speaker? I just did. Diamandis came up and did his speech and he couldn’t, there was an elephant in the room. He said “Alright, so okay I’ve been challenged here. Dychtwald, come on up here let’s figure this out, and so live on stage, we figured out how we’re going to create an X Price to end Alzheimer’s disease, and so for the last 6 years with a group of some of the world’s greatest scientists and hackers and gamers and dataminers.

So we’re not just looking for neuroscientists. We are about to, we raised 25 million dollars. We are about to launch early next year for the world a crowdsourced solution to being able to target Alzheimer’s before there are symptoms so it can be turned off. We may fail, but we’re going to give it our best shot so I’m pretty proud of working on that when there’s no money involved for me. I’ve been partially funding it and it’s pretty exciting, you know? I’ll tell you this one thing probably what inspired it. A few years ago my wife and I got caught in Sweden. Sweden’s great, but if we got caught on a rainy day in Sweden and we were walking around umbrellas and we wandered into the Nobel Museum. I didn’t even know it was there. And you know there’s the usual pictures of Nobel Prize winners but they had a little screening room and we went in and there was a documentary being screened on a big TV monitor. It was sort of an interview with a Nobel Prize winner and how he had his breakthrough. And it wasn’t a straight line, he went to graduate school, he knew what he was going to do this. It was his wife kicked him in the head and then he met another person, and they had an argument and his nose ran and that was what led to his breakthrough. When it was over my wife and I said, “Wow, that was wild.” We got to leave and another one came on. We spent the whole day watching how these breakthroughs had happened and they almost always come from serendipity and crossover and you know, an orthopedic guy looking at the brain, and you know, interventional cardiology did not come from a cardiologist, came from a physicist, you know. Things happen, so what we’re going to try to do is unleash this kind of creativity and imagination to try to solve the, use our best minds to try to save our minds.

HR: Ken Dychtwald, how can people find out more about you?

KD: Our company’s website is www.agewave.com. That’s a portal that can take them to all the different things we do and that we’re involved with.

HR: What have we not spoken about that you’d like to talk about? Would you like to talk about some of your books, documentaries, projects?

KD: I don’t need to promote books. I got something I’d like to talk about for a few minutes. So we haven’t seen each other since we were 15. You’ve looked at my life, I’ve looked at your life. What scares you about getting older? And I’ll tell you what scares me.

HR: I would be so happy at this age of 68 if didn’t feel I was getting closer to death, and otherwise I feel really great. I feel stressed out because I want to make sure everything’s in order for when I do go. For you daughter, your loved ones, you know. Make sure everything is good, but I feel that I’m not performing up to my potential to get good stuff done. That’s how I feel.

KD: Do you feel like a senior citizen?

HR: No.

KD: Do you feel old?

HR: No.

KD: Let me take a shot at the same question. I don’t ever want to be a senior citizen and I have a lot of respect for senior citizens, but to me that’s like I have this thing in my head. That’s what my grandma was. I wouldn’t mind being thought of as an elder. I like that. I am okay with that word. I also feel a certain amount of anxiety and pressure. Am I doing it right? Am I living up to my potential? And it’s eerie, because I thought when I reach this age, I’d be ready to take the cruise and kick back, but while I want to have more time to play, I really do find that I feel more driven in some ways than I ever have before. What frightens me, I’m frightened by suffering. I watched my mom transition from being a beautiful woman and a dancer to wheelchair and diapers and my dad lost his vision and sort of lost his mind a little bit at the end. The suffering of aging used to be, as you know, people got sick, they died or you died in childbirth, or you got shot, you were dead. Now we’ve got this, I’ve seen enough people who are going through these horrific years, decades of suffering. That frightens me. Both for me and for my family, and I kind of like you know this this idea of living a full, loving, productive life and then lights out is more appealing to me then being in some kind of an institution for years.

HR: And so what you have done is you are creating positive tools. You’re walking the walk. You’re much more than talking the talk, and for you to do everything you’ve done and continue to do it in such a positive, energetic way. Notice that I’ve corrected my behavior.

KD: Not youthful. I’m okay with youthful. Young is different, but youthful is okay, but I wanted to tap you on that one. But energetic is good.

HR: Positive, energetic, wonderful. Thank you so much for being with us today. It’s been an honor and a pleasure.

KD: I want to tell you my friend that it’s an honor just to be here in the space with you and have this kind of discussion. No s***, I mean it’s just great to be with you.