Terry Dischinger and Dementia

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Terry Dischinger was an All-American college basketball player at Purdue, averaging 28 points per game, and a 2019 inductee into the College Basketball Hall of Fame. At age 19, he was a member of the United States men’s 1960 Olympic championship basketball team. He went on to play basketball for nine years in the NBA, where he was a three-time NBA All-Star and the 1963 NBA Rookie of the Year.

After retiring from the NBA at age 33 in 1973, he went to dental school and was valedictorian of his class. He had a highly successful orthodontic practice, had multiple patents for dental equipment and traveled extensively to teach the latest techniques in orthodontic practice. In spite of this incredible record, this brilliant athlete died of Alzheimer’s disease at age 82 on October 10, 2023.

Dementia Risk Factors
Alzheimer’s disease is one of several causes of dementia in which brain damage is associated with plaques deposited in the brain.  By age 45, North American adults have a 20 percent chance of developing dementia (Dementia, 2015;11(3):310-20), and by age 85, more than 35 percent have early or full-blown dementia (JAMA Neurol, 2022;79(12):1242-1249). The risk for dementia can be reduced significantly by exercising, maintaining a healthful weight, keeping blood sugar levels low, and avoiding smoking (Lancet, Feb 1, 2022;7(2):e93-e94). Dischinger was a great athlete and had few of the known risk factors for dementia.

• A study of 21,982 patients with Alzheimer’s disease and 41,944 controls without Alzheimer’s disease classified participants by their genetic ability to grow larger muscles. Those with larger muscles had a significantly greater cognitive performance (memory) and were significantly less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease (Brit Med J, June 2023;2:e000354). Dischinger had large muscles.

• Starting an exercise program helped a group of previously-sedentary seniors to improve brain memory and reasoning (Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease Reports, May 12, 2023;7(1): 399-413).

• A review of 88 studies found that 58 percent reported significant effects of lower education on risk for dementia and 42 percent reported no significant relationship. (Alzheimer Dis Assoc Disord. Oct, 2011;25(4):289–304). Dischinger had two college degrees and was the top student in his dental school class.

• Low IQ, low cognitive reserve, low occupational achievement and fewer years of education are significant risk macros for dementia (PLoS ONE June 4, 2012;7(6): e38268). Dischinger had none of these risk factors.

• Everyone loses brain cells with aging and loss of brain function may be caused by lack of adequate blood flow and nourishment of brain cells (Cell Stem Cell, April 5, 2018;22(4):589–599). All age groups have the same number of neural progenitor cells and immature neurons that make new nerve cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that governs memory. The brains of older people have progressive loss of new blood vessels with aging and with that, the loss of ability of brain cells to connect with each other. Anything that increases blood flow to the brain may stimulate growth of new blood vessels and brain cells, so the prevention and treatment of dementia should include exercise (Sports Med, 2007;37(9):765-82).

• Exercise reduces obesity, another risk factor for dementia (Metabolism, May 2013;62(5):609-621). Many studies show that obesity is associated with a markedly increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease, by increasing risk for inflammation, insulin resistance, and higher levels in fat tissue of beta amyloid, the protein harmful to brain health. Dischinger was not overweight.

• Dementia has the same risk factors that heart attacks do (Dementia, Aug, 2021;2(8):e498-e506), and reducing and keeping cholesterol and triglycerides low is a likely way to reduce dementia risk. High blood sugar and high blood pressure are major risk factors for dementia. A study from Johns Hopkins showed that the younger a person develops diabetes or pre-diabetes, the more likely they are to become demented (Diabetologia, May 24, 2023). People who developed diabetes before age 60 were three times more likely to develop dementia than those who did not develop diabetes before age 60. Those who developed diabetes after age 70 were only 23 percent more likely to suffer from dementia, and those who developed diabetes in their 80s or 90s had no increased risk for developing dementia. I have not examined Dischinger and have never seen his medical records, so I do not know if he had heart attack risk factors.

Lifestyle Changes to Improve Brain Function Can Be Made at Any Age
Previously sedentary people who started exercising in their 70s and 80s, including those who had already experienced some cognitive decline, showed improvement in brain function after they started an exercise program (Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease Reports, May, 12, 2023;7(1): 399-413).

An anti-inflammatory diet LINK helps prevent dementia. Researchers have not proven that diet changes can help to prevent or treat dementia, but strong data associate a pro-inflammatory diet with increased risk for dementia (Neurology, Nov 10, 2021;10.1212). In this study, 1059 non-demented people, average age 73, were divided into three groups based on high, medium and low inflammatory diet scores. At the end of the three-year study period, 62 of the participants had become demented. Those with the worst inflammatory diet scores were 3.5 times more likely to become demented than those with the best scores. Each week for three years, the people with the best anti-inflammatory scores had eaten an average of 20 servings of fruit, 19 servings of vegetables, and 4 servings of beans or other legumes. Those with the worst scores had eaten only a weekly  average of nine servings of fruit, 10 servings of vegetables and two servings of legumes.

My Recommendations
If you notice that you are becoming forgetful, lose your train of thought, or forget names and common words, you may want to ask your doctor for a medical assessment. In “Harnessing Healthy Behaviors to Prevent Dementia,” the American Heart Association reported that dementia is associated with the following modifiable risk factors: depression, all heart attack risk factors, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, physical inactivity, an inflammatory diet, smoking, social isolation, excessive alcohol use, sleep disorders and hearing loss (Stroke, Mar 15, 2021:52(6A);52:e295-e308). Changing these lifestyle risk factors can reduce your chances of suffering from dementia.  See Challenging Your Brain During Exercise May Help to Prevent Dementia
Move Around to Help Prevent Dementia
Risk Factors for Dementia and Heart Attacks Start Early in Life

Terry Dischinger
November 1, 1940 – October 10, 2023