The blues were born in the Mississippi Delta shortly before the dawn of the 20th Century. The genre, known for its stories of hard times and suffering, originated with African-American sharecroppers who endured long, hot and hard labor picking cotton in the sweltering heat of the summer sun, lived in squalid conditions, and were kept in manipulated indentureship and perpetual debt by never quite making enough money to pay off their bills at local merchants.
While a few blues artists – Robert Johnson, W.C. Handy, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday – brought the sound of the blues into the mainstream of music during the first half of the 20th Century, it was not until the late 1940’s and early 1950’s that blues blossomed and hit its stride as a bona fide genre of American music.
An accomplished guitarist with an one-of-a-kind voice that wrung out every bit of pain, sorrow, and pragmatism that the blues had to offer, King, in many ways, became the face of the blues for a lot of America.
While blues artists had a profound influence on rock – British artists of the 1960’s drew heavily on their influence and vast body of work and groups like the Yardbirds, Cream, and Derek and the Dominos, fronted by Eric Clapton, were the crossroads where blues and rock met and married, producing generations of rock-blues musicians that continue today (listen to Nirvana’s haunting acoustic version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,” and it’s as though you can hear Lead Belly singing along in the background) – in general, they continued to exist, much like jazz musicians, in a popular, but tightly-defined, niche in the landscape of popular American music.
Except for B. B. King. With his famously-named guitar – Lucille – and his showmanship as a guitarist, along with highly-accessible songs, including his eponymous “The Thrill Is Gone,” King managed to gain a large popular audience.
B. B. King stayed on the music circuit, performing along the way with artists like Clapton, The Rolling Stones (King opened for them on their 1969 tour), and U2, despite battling diabetes and high blood pressure for decades.
In the last few years, blues fans have consistently pointed out that B. B. King’s performances were erratic at best: King missed musical cues, forgot lyrics, and often went into long, rambling, and random soliloquies while onstage.
B. B. King’s last performance was on October 3, 2014 in Chicago. However, the performance had to be cut short because King wasn’t feeling well enough to continue. He was hospitalized with dehydration and exhaustion.
On May 1, 2015, after two hospitalizations due to complications from diabetes and blood pressure, B. B. King’s website announced that King had entered hospice care at his home in Las Vegas.
On May 14, 2015, B. B. King died. The official cause of King’s death was complications from dementia (vascular dementia).
Today’s post will discuss lifestyle dementia. Many of the people, especially the elderly and very elderly, suffering from dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease today either have the genetic markers for it or – and this is my opinion, but I see strong evidence to support it with the precipitous explosion of dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease – are suffering from the effects of living on a toxic earth, eating toxic food, and breathing toxic air.
However, another group of dementia sufferers is emerging.
They are younger and have very different lifestyles than their elderly and very elderly counterparts with whom they share the same commonalities of dementia. This group of people has dementia that is directly related to lifestyle.
How we live our lives is a series of choices that we make consciously or unconsciously along the way. That is what becomes our lifestyle. Our lifestyle – all of those choices – has short-term effects and long-term effects.
The long-term effects of those lifestyle choices are beginning to be seen in the growing number of people suffering with lifestyle dementia. One of the generations most noticeably – and disproportionate to the incidence in the expected populations of the elderly and very elderly – affected is the Baby Boomer generation (people born between 1943 and 1960, according to William Strauss and Neil Howe in their book The Fourth Turning, which I highly recommend that everyone read).
I strongly suspect that one of the lifestyle choices, which I’ll discuss later, that was prevalent with this generation during the 1960’s and early 1970’s is a key contributor to the development of the lifestyle dementia we see emerging among this age group today.
Before we proceed with describing lifestyle choices that could lead to lifestyle dementia, it’s important to understand what the word dementia describes. Any loss of function of and/or damage to the internal components of the brain (neurological, chemical, or physical) falls under the broad category of dementia when describing the brain’s condition.
(Inset note: Alzheimer’s Disease is the shrinkage of the size of the brain from the outside in, brought on by a specific condition that occurs in the nerve cells of the brain. Therefore, it’s important to remember that all people suffering from dementia don’t necessarily have Alzheimer’s Disease, while all people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease have a very specific kind of dementia, commonly called tangles and plaques.)
So dementia is a condition – or state – of the brain. Like many nouns, this condition or state has adjectives that describe where the loss of function or damage is or specific identified abnormalities of the brain that affect function and cognition. Therefore, when we see the term vascular dementia, for example, the loss of function and/or damage to the brain is related to the blood vessels in the brain.
So what kind of lifestyle choices can lead to lifestyle dementia?
In the last twenty to thirty years, the western world has adopted a supersized fast-food diet, a very sedentary lifestyle, and an “ignorance is bliss” attitude toward taking care of their health with regular medical checkups and changes in their lifestyles to address health issues like diabetes and high blood pressure.
Unchecked or uncontrolled, both high blood pressure and diabetes directly affect the health of the blood vessels in the brain, leading to widespread blood vessel damage and neurological cell death, which is the cause of vascular dementia.
Another lifestyle choice that can lead to lifestyle dementia is alcohol abuse. While it’s generally believed that alcohol doesn’t directly kill brain cells, alcohol abuse creates key vitamin deficiencies that adversely affect the brain and adversely affects the liver’s ability to remove toxins from the body. Research shows that women who abuse alcohol begin to exhibit the adverse effects in half the time that men who abuse alcohol do.
A third lifestyle choice that can lead to lifestyle dementia is drug abuse. I noted earlier that one lifestyle choice seems to point to why there is such a high incidence of older Baby Boomers showing signs of dementia at earlier ages than their elderly and very elderly counterparts do. I believe that this phenomenon has a direct correlation to the pervasive and unabashed drug experimentation within this age group in the 1960’s and early 1970’s.
A few years ago, I watched a documentary entitled The Drug Years on the History Channel (it was originally produced by the Sundance Channel and VH1). If you have not seen it, you should (Netflix and Hulu subscribers will find it in the Documentaries section). It’s shocking in some ways, but very informative in others. If you’re like me, you’ll watch it shaking your head a lot. But there’s a lot of history that explains things before some of us (like me) were born or cognizant and it also explains our continuing prevalent and unabashed drug culture in the U.S. today.
The series had a lot of commentary by Martin Torgoff, who wrote 2005’s Can’t Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age 1945-2000. Intrigued by the title (the first part of the title is the title of one of my favorite songs by the band Traffic), I read the book after watching the documentary. I don’t believe that any book I’ve ever read scared me as much as Torgoff’s book did. And as much head-shaking as I did during the documentary, I did even more reading this book.
As Torgoff described the drug abuse of the 1960’s and early 1970’s and quoted well-known and not-so-well-known people about their own drug use and abuse, it became evident that there was an uninhibited desire to find, use, and abuse any substance that substantially altered the brain. The more altered the brain was, the “better” the experience.
With the psychedelic agents in LSD, acid, psilocybin mushrooms, and peyote, perceptions became altered, hallucinations occurred, and illusions became real. In short, this generation liberally sought every possible means of chemically inducing the manifestations of dementia. In the process, neurological damage occurred and now, with age, the effects of that damage are becoming more evident with the emergence of lifestyle dementia.
And the neurological damage from this lifestyle choice continues with the use of more modern drugs like Ecstasy, Adderall, and “bath salts,” which are psychoactive and which stimulate the brain beyond its normal capacity and can produce hallucinations, seizures, and even death.
Bath salts, which have become popular in the last couple of years, permanently create irreversible neurological damage because of the simultaneous and voluminous suckerpunch all at once to the brain with the chemical effects of amphetamines and cocaine.
It remains to be seen, although it certainly will occur, what lifestyle dementias develop among the Millennials using these drugs today.
Some things happen to us in life through no fault of our own. However, we have choices in how we live our lives, and we can make positive lifestyle choices that, while they may not preclude any of us from developing Alzheimer’s Disease and dementias down the road, will ensure that we’ve done every within our power to ensure that our choices and actions haven’t contributed to it.