Max Lugavere was in denial when he saw his mother, Kathy, who was just 56-years-old, slowly slipping away.
It was 2009 that he first noticed she was moving slower, becoming stiff and would lose her thought in the middle of a conversation.
“She was the kind of person anybody would describe as a sharp-witted, high performer,” Max tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, “and it suddenly seemed like she had the brain of an 80-year-old.”
He and two younger brothers brushed it off because “she was so young” and didn’t think anything could be seriously wrong until they took a family trip to Miami.
“She couldn’t tell us what year it was, and she started to cry. It was like a record screeching to a halt, and I knew something was seriously wrong,” says Max, now 37, who immediately became her biggest advocate and went to dozens of doctors appointments with her.
Kathy was given the news in 2011 that they had dreaded from the beginning: she was diagnosed with the rare Lewy Body Dementia.
“I was watching the person who I loved more than anything in the world start to decline,” says Max, a Los Angeles-based science and health journalist. “I just became insanely motivated — just fixated on trying to figure out why.”
After her death in December 2018, his “entire world turned upside down,” but he continued to try to understand why and how why Kathy got dementia so young.
Discovering that Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, often begins decades before the first symptoms show, he learned there are ways to help prevent it from ever happening.
“We can eat in a way that supplies our brain with the raw materials it requires to create healthy new brain cells, which we now know the adult brain can do up until death,” says Max, who published in March 2018 his bestselling book Genius Foods (written with Paul Grewal, M.D.). “I discovered that diet is incredibly important and so is your lifestyle.”
Foods, such as omega-3 fatty acids, protein and dark leafy greens are crucial and others agree with his findings.
“He is intelligently helping us understand that there are things you can do with diet and lifestyle that slow cognitive decline,” says Dr. Ellen Vora, a holistic psychiatrist. “These diet changes certainly help with dementia, but they’re also going to help with many other things like heart disease, cancer prevention and mental health.”
He’s since launched a podcast called The Genius Life and is working on a second book with the same title coming out in 2020.
“Losing my mom was the biggest tragedy of my life,” says Lugavere, “but I’ve been compelled since day one to turn it into something that makes it a little less painful. I want to help as many people as I possibly can.”