No movie ghoul will ever be as scary as Alzheimer’s disease. Sorry, vampires, Paimon worshippers, Bird Box monsters, and Tonya Harding’s mom. The only equivalent terrors are other real-world neurodegenerative diseases: illnesses that haunt us because there is so little we can do to combat or prevent them.
That’s why, when I heard about Heather Eaton’s Anti-Alzheimer’s Silly Sisters Cooking Club — a food-focused initiative to help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s for herself and her friends — I was all in.
Four years ago, the professor of conflict studies at Saint Paul University, in Ottawa, learned that meeting new people is extremely good for our memory. While there is no known way to prevent Alzheimer’s, memory training is a helpful tool that strengthens our resiliency. Over dinner, she discussed it with her two friends Heather Swail and Suzanne Evans. None of them has Alzheimer’s, but they all have it in their families.
“We’re all middle-aged, and our memories are less acute than they were 15 years ago,” says Eaton. “We all like to cook, eat, and meet new people. So we thought we should put all of this together. Why not help our minds stay somewhat vibrant? So we started this cooking club.”
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Lots of friends start book clubs, badminton clubs, or dinner clubs as a convenient excuse to get together. What makes the A.A.S.S.cc (the c’s are silent) such a brilliant idea are its elegantly simple rules.
Once a month, one of the founding members hosts dinner in her home. The three friends agree on a theme — national cuisines such as Greek, Indian, Vietnamese, and Mexican, or more specific themes such as salads, noodles, sweet and sour, Oktoberfest — and each person makes one or two dishes.
Now here’s the clever twist: They have to cook dishes they’ve never cooked before. And the host has to invite guests that the other two have never met. The guests do not bring food. So while it’s a potluck-style dinner, there’s no obligation or buy-in on the part of the guests. They contribute by participating in an activity endorsed by the Alzheimer Society of Canada — the challenge of learning about a new person.
“What’s good for our hearts is good for our brains,” says Mary Schulz, director of education at the ASC. “The stronger your brain is, like any other organ, the more likely it is to resist illness or injury. If there is a blockage, the brain can have a cognitive reserve.”
And you don’t have to do something intensive like learning to play an instrument or speak a language in order to create new pathways in your brain. Schulz recommends that you pick up new activities that are fun and easy and therefore easier to stick with.
“Try to brush your teeth or your hair with your less-dominant hand. That is not easy. Your brain goes, what is this? That’s what you want, that wake-up call to your brain. You will feel that when you’re doing something that feels new and uncomfortable. It’s better for your brain, now and then, to be startled out of its comfort zone.”
Schulz says that the supper-club idea combines multiple elements that are good for us. When we talk with old friends, we can often predict what they’re going to say. So our brains are on autopilot. Meeting new people demands much more of us.
“You need to stay on your game, asking questions, learning a new perspective, probably considering that perspective, integrating it, reflecting on it, which you might not do with people you talk to all the time,” she says. “When you meet somebody new, you’re a little bit more alert, on edge in a good way, and hopefully learning something new. And your brain has to be more nimble because it doesn’t know what’s coming next.”
The same goes for the recipes. It’s comforting to cook something we’ve made 100 times. But it’s more mentally challenging to follow a recipe that involves using unfamiliar ingredients and developing new skills. It’s like a workout for your brain.
“The cooking club doesn’t come out of the fear of getting Alzheimer’s,” says Eaton. “It comes out of the fact that it’s in most people’s families somewhere. And it came out of the desire to have fun cooking, eating, and meeting interesting people.”
The mandate to cook new cuisines has expanded their boundaries and made them better cooks. The “silly” in the title denotes the tone of the evenings. They often dress up to match the theme, wearing eight-inch chef hats that have the name of the club on the brim.
“We do a lot of serious things in the day,” says Eaton. “This has to be for fun.”
The three women, all in their 50s and 60s, put together the guest lists, drawing from their well-established professional and social spheres, which include teachers, writers, academics, and activists.
“We have to have people who come with a good sense of humour, which limits academics sometimes,” admits Eaton. “They have to be people who are fun. No one has declined. But we were surprised that it’s worked so well. At every meal, someone wants to join. Someone says, “Can I come next time?’”