Not gonna lie. I found this Everything, Everywhere, All At Once movie to be challenging to watch, and I didn’t get most of it. I often find it difficult to follow science fiction plots that jump across the multiverse, even when they are not also centered on themes like Asian American identity, intergenerational angst and nihilism.
I feel like it’s a piece of art that will take me a few more tries to digest and rewatch. Funnily enough, it reminds me of my brain health journey, and how I think about dementia.
The movie fandom has all kinds of theories about the meaning of the “everything bagel” in this movie. But for me in the context of brain health, Everything quite simply refers to the fact that even though our brain health is so important, we don’t actually think or talk about it much.
Everything to do with your health contributes to brain health
What I mean is that, in many ways, our brain health is the sum of all our other health concerns. For example, we often talk about our physical fitness routines or aches and pains. We may discuss trends in nutrition that we are trying. It’s even become more commonplace to talk about mental health, or heart health, e.g. cholesterol, diabetes, or high blood pressure. We tend to lose track of brain health as being the ultimate goal because it’s the culmination of so many other health measures.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the contributors to brain disease, whether it’s managing sleep or doing cognitive training. Our brain health is impacted by all of our habits, perhaps even more so by the ones we don’t think much about, like sleep hygiene, sugar, drinking or other vices.
Like the parable of the blind man who can only feel the part of the elephant that’s in front of him, focusing on cognitive exercises is only one part of the overall picture.
Our brains are the most fragile organ in our bodies, and our minds define our very identities. Everything to do with your health contributes to brain health, and our brains are critically important for Everything; our ability to work, to love, to survive, and to enjoy life.
Yet, doesn’t it seem odd that there’s a hole in the middle of this Everything - like why don’t we know more about brain health, and why aren’t we talking about it all the time?
Undervaluing brain health
In the Everything movie, the evil villain Jobu Tapaki is created when the mom character Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) effectively rejects her daughter Joy’s (Stephanie Hsu) lesbian relationship in front of Evelyn’s dad Gong Gong. In characteristic Asian American fashion, inconvenient truths are swept away and hidden from elders as a matter of course.
Our brains are critically important for Everything
In the same way, our modern society has drastically under-funded and failed to support dementia research. We have continued to look the other way and ignore the reality of dementia for decades, to our own detriment. We have only recently begun to see more action and funding for Alzheimer’s disease and brain health, but there is still a huge gap between what is spent in terms of research for dementia compared to other areas.
Our undervaluing of caregivers and families living with dementia is the other most obvious way that we reject the reality of dementia. The WHO currently estimates the prevalence of dementia at 55 million worldwide, with an added 10 million new cases per year. Unpaid family caregivers spend about a quarter of their income taking care of dementia patients, often placing their own careers at risk because of the unpredictability of the need to take leave from work.
It’s not surprising that we all know a friend or co-worker whose life has been touched by dementia, either as a caregiver or family member. And yet even those of us who are caregivers are reluctant to talk about it. We don’t want to be perceived as complaining, nor do we want to be pitied.
Stigmas are defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. As such, in our youth-oriented culture, there is some degree of stigma attached to simply getting older. Being middle-aged, over-the-hill, past our prime. Mental health disorders and brain health diseases also carry stigma, more so than other conditions like cancer.
There is so much freedom in recognizing that we can choose whether or not to buy into the societal programming that gives power to a certain standard of ideal of youth, beauty, thinness, race. Of course we know objectively that our personal values don’t necessarily align with what our society chooses to popularize or glamourize. But it’s harder to rewire decades of programming from my mom, who loves her 103-year-old mother, but hates the idea of birthdays or aging. It will probably take another decade of coaching for me to love and accept my gray hairs.
Stigma often comes down to fear. Fear of aging really relates more to fear of becoming weak, disabled, powerless. We fear losing respect, independence or dignity. And even though we have seen examples of extraordinary individuals who age gracefully, remaining healthy, active and productive well into their nineties, we don’t actually believe that could be us.
Multiverse of futures
One of my favorite scenes in the Everything movie is where Evelyn finds herself in an absurd world where we have big, useless, floppy hotdog fingers on our hands. It’s one of those images you can’t imagine until you’ve seen it, and then you can never unsee it. Not only is it crazy creative, but it opens the door to allow our wildest ideas to be possible..
I love the idea that there are a multitude of futures that I could and can create for myself. I have no doubt that I could have stayed in academic medicine at the University of Washington, taking on more leadership positions and building Integrative Medicine there. It was certainly the more predictable and safer career move.
But instead I made the nihilistic choice of returning to Hong Kong, taking two years to pass the impossibly difficult medical licensing exam here, and to do a year of internship. At one point, I found myself in the absurd position of turning down a Vice-Chair position at Stanford University, in favor of an internship job in Hong Kong.
There are a multitude of futures that I could and can create for myself
Back then, I could never have predicted that I would be experiencing this personal renaissance, merging my love of family with medicine, coaching, art and brain health. And yet, I’ve learned to lean into that trust and intuition that tells me I can proactively choose to do the work to be healthy of mind and body at my 100th birthday party. And that my personal legend is about bringing along as many others as are willing to join me on this journey.
If you are interested in joining our community of midlife women caregivers to learn more about your brain health, I would encourage you to start by taking the Brain Health Index Quiz. Learn more about your Brain Health Index Score HERE.