How not to get Alzheimer's

Of all the Big Fears, for aging parents or our aging selves, Alzheimer’s probably ranks #1. So what if we could stave it off?

A new project, the Cognitive Fitness and Innovative Therapies, or CFIT, is trying to keep people at risk for Alzheimer’s intellectually and physically fit with quizzes and other cognitive challenges to see if onset of the disease can be delayed, perhaps indefinitely. The program, which is being advised by many famous names in Alzheimer’s research and treatment, also promotes diet changes and maintaining a social life to try to slow cognitive decline and lower the risk for Alzheimer’s.

Try some problems some people practice to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.

The Wall Street Journal’s invitation to try a few of these Alzheimer’s-prevention exercises seemed tempting for this reporter, so I clicked on over. It should be noted here that although I hold undergraduate and graduate degrees from reputable institutions, they are in Art and Short Fiction. These exercises are not for the faint-hearted, or the right-brained. (Actually, after following a few more links and trying another quiz it was determined that my right brain/left brain dominance is split 16 to 16; this may be the problem.) Maybe they are for the MIT alumni.

Kenneth S. Kosik, co-director of the Neuroscience Research Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, launched CFIT with a center in Santa Barbara last year. Dr. Kosik recommends that individuals start efforts to prevent the disease in their 50s.

“By the time someone walks in my door with symptoms of the disease, it’s too late” to stop it, says Dr. Kosik, who plans to open four CFIT centers in New York and California. The idea behind the new research is that lifestyle interventions may delay or prevent the disease before symptoms appear—or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s once they do manifest.

The CFIT exercises seem to go a step — or perhaps a leap — farther than the SharpBrain exercises, which are also recommended by all sorts of people who understand brain function. (And seem, I have to say, a lot more like fun and less like Alzheimer’s prevention.) Any of them will keep you awake, and quite possibly stave off dementia.

The shift in thinking has been bolstered by public health efforts to prevent cognitive decline and delay or prevent Alzheimer’s disease, which affects some 5.3 million Americans. A 2007 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Alzheimer’s Association, a nonprofit group that funds research and supports advocacy and education, called for implementing findings on exercise and diet into actions people can do to maintain cognitive health. A CDC review of the scientific literature is expected to be released this year. The groups have been working together to gather data from individual states on the extent of cognitive impairment and meeting with state health officials to develop public campaigns to promote brain health.

Scientists don’t know exactly what causes Alzheimer’s, a progressive brain disorder that accounts for the majority of dementia cases, although genetics and age likely play a role. There are only four drugs approved for the disease, but these just treat individual symptoms and don’t stop the relentless course of the illness. New medicines are in testing but are likely to take years before they reach medical clinics.

This space highly recommends that you get started right away. We all want to believe it’s not too late.

Ways You Can Stave Off Alzheimer’s – WSJ.com.

Patients fight hospitals (& not just Catholic hospitals) for proper care

“Suppose I wind up being taken to a hospital,” said the lady with the penetrating blue eyes and a lovely, long braid over her shoulder. “How can I keep them from doing all those things I don’t want — ventilators, feeding tubes…?”

The lady with the lush braid was among a small group of retirement community residents with whom I spoke yesterday about end of life choices. None of them fear death. All of them fear aggressive, unwanted treatment. A colleague and I had been invited to talk with them about documents (advance directives, POLST forms, etc) and legal measures that can help insure a compassionate end. But the distressing reality is that there are no guarantees.

This is where we are with health care: patients having to fight against doctors, hospitals, systems — and directives from Bishops — for the right to die in peace.

A recent Kaiser Health News article (KHN is a publication of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and unrelated to Kaiser Permanente) cited problems arising from directives to Catholic hospitals about a variety of issues. The directives, issued in November by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, changed the policy on feeding tubes, for example, from “presumption in favor of”  to an “obligation.”

“This obligation,” the bishops said, “extends to patients in chronic and presumably irreversible conditions,” such as persistent vegetative state, who might live for many years if given such care. A feeding tube is not required, however, if it wouldn’t prolong life, would be “excessively burdensome for the patient,” or would “cause significant physical discomfort.”The directive raises fresh questions about the ability of patients to have their end-of-life treatment wishes honored — and whether and how a health care provider should comply with lawful requests not consistent with the provider’s religious views. Hospitals and nursing homes do not have to comply with requests that are “contrary to Catholic moral teaching,” according to longstanding policy that, as in the case of the revised directive, applies to non-Catholic patients as well.

As the women in our group yesterday understand, you can wind up with unwanted treatment in all sorts of circumstances, not just when you’re dying.

Dr. Lachlan Forrow, a Harvard University medical ethicist and palliative care specialist, expressed strong concern about the new policy, stressing its potentially broad scope. “That gets to be a very, very large number of people,” said Forrow, who heads a panel developing recommendations for the state of Massachusetts on end-of-life care.

(A)ccording to Catholic officials and outside experts, the directive may well apply to a wider range of patients, those that it describes as having “chronic and presumably irreversible conditions,” though the organization representing Catholic health facilities downplays the impact. Experts say this affected group could include those with massive strokes, advanced Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injury and Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

If a patient or family didn’t want a feeding tube “and the reason they don’t want it is they basically want to die, then the Catholic institution would explain to them they can’t cooperate with that and they would have to go to another institution,” said the Rev. Thomas G. Weinandy, executive director for doctrine at the bishops’ conference, who helped draft the policy.

Weinandy said “obviously the public should know what the directives say,” and patients and relatives “can easily download the directives or get a copy.”

Oh, sure. The EMT people are loading mom into the ambulance, and you ask them to wait until you download a few pages of papal edicts.

In the days before she died two weeks ago (in a non-Catholic hospital) my sister Jane occasionally showed signs that, though sleeping, she might be experiencing pain. My niece, who was keeping round-the-clock watch over her mother, more than once asked the attending physician for additional pain medication and was told, in a “There, there now, dear” voice that “We can’t hasten!!” My niece is a tenured law school professor.

Doctors make a lot of fuss about that “First, do no harm” business in the Hippocratic oath. Is withholding pain medication because it might cause death a few hours sooner than later doing no harm? Is inflicting painful, unwanted and unwarranted interventions for some obscure religious reason doing no harm?

Catholic Directive May Thwart End-Of-Life Wishes – Kaiser Health News.

Can geezer drivers become better drivers?

This is the initial report from the field re geezer drivers and brain exercise. This space hereby goes on record as a believer. Just a minimal believer, but I — a certified geezer driver — actually think aging brains can become better-driving brains.

I recently downloaded, accessed, stored, signed in and completed whatever else one must do to begin the Posit Science DriveSharp program, an initial exercise in brain sharpening for computer Luddites. There are other programs out there to sharpen the skills of geezer drivers, and plenty of computer-game exercises aimed at the same goal. Posit Science (I am not on their payroll) offered me their program without charge, and little by little I plan to get all the way through.

For now, I have only done some initial roaming around and a few of the exercises. But an interesting thing has happened. Much of this is about how, as one ages, one’s “useful field of view” diminshes. So one might see the stop sign but miss the car speeding around the corner to the left. (If that’s a texting driver, you’re toast.)

I don’t think I’ve improved my useful field of view. But on an extended driving trip with my husband and a friend — in his wife’s fancy Lexus — this past weekend, I was actually complimented on my skills (ever try the two-lane, pothole-filled miles over the mountains from Hwy 101 to California’s Lost Coast?) by the car’s owner who had retired to the back seat. I think just the awareness of what “useful field of view” means makes a difference. Plus, I think brain exercises, even if they’re just teasers (Teasers for Geezers, this could be a new hit) build awareness of the complex issues drivers can face.

Try thinking about that “useful field of view” business, taking a test or doing a few brain exercises before your next drive, and see if you notice any difference. If I can ever find some actual time to do so I will undertake a few hours of actual DriveSharp program and report back.

Meanwhile, hang up the phone, please, and watch out for texters and geezers behind the wheel.

Medical marijuana benefits proven

Surprise. Medical marijuana really helps. What millions of us have known ever since friends with AIDS proved it more than a decade ago is now affirmed. San Francisco Chronicle writers Victoria Colliver and Wyatt Buchanan broke the news today:

The first U.S. clinical trials in more than 20 years on the medical efficacy of marijuana found that pot helps relieve pain and muscle spasms associated with multiple sclerosis and certain neurological conditions, according to a report released Wednesday by a UC research center.

Dr. Igor Grant, a UC San Diego psychiatrist who directs the center, called the report “good evidence” that marijuana would be an effective front-line treatment for neuropathy, a condition that can cause tingling, numbness and pain.

The results of five state-funded scientific clinical trials came 14 years after California voters passed a law approving marijuana for medical use and more than 10 years after the state Legislature passed a law that created the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at UC San Diego, which conducted the studies.

California’s Proposition 215, passed in 1996, allows patients with a valid doctor’s recommendation to grow and possess marijuana for personal medical use. It is one of 14 state laws legalizing medical marijuana. But the federal government still says pot is illegal and without medical benefit. Perhaps that may now change.

“This is the first step in approaching the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration), which has invested absolutely nothing in providing scientific data to resolve the debate,” said state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who noted that marijuana showed benefits throughout the AIDS epidemic in helping people afflicted with neuropathy and other ailments.

Dale Gieringer, a Berkeley resident who is executive director of the California branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, agreed.

“This is finally the evidence that shows that the (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration) stance that marijuana does not have medical use is just wrong,” he said. “It’s time for the Obama administration to act.”

The bad news is that funding for research that could further confirm the potential medical benefits of marijuana may soon run out.

The Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research has approved 15 clinical studies, five of which were completed and reported Wednesday, and two are in progress. While researchers said more studies are needed, the future of the center is in doubt.

The center has spent all but $400,000 of the $8.9 million in research funding it started with in 1999. Leno said the state doesn’t have the money to continue funding it.

“It may be close to the end of its life unless there’s foundation money to continue the work,” Leno said.

If we could just combine the savings that could accrue from getting the feds out of the pot-prosecution business and the taxes that would accrue from legalization of medicinal use, a lot of that work could continue. And a lot of suffering could be alleviated.

Banished by Facebook — the new justice by internet

I have been exiled from Facebook Land, a status that really should have a status bar all its own. Actually, it was just one post that got summarily banished — but still…

Facts of the case: I posted, not long ago, a brief story of interesting discoveries made by the Gerald P. Murphy Cancer Foundation that were reported in a segment on MSNBC. The foundation, headed by Dr. David Waters, DVM, PhD, works to extend longevity in pets and people through collection of vast amounts of data, much of it canine data. The news involved a 13-year-old Rottweiler named Kona.

PETA strongly supports the work of the Gerald P. Murphy Foundation. I thought I’d throw that into this report. The earlier post didn’t mention PETA, but it was clear about this fact: the foundation collects data, it does not conduct experiments using animals. The story was about clues to longevity found through data analysis.

Oh, well — dogs and research were mentioned, and flags went up somewhere in cyberspace.

The post was reported as abusive. Facebook summarily removed the whole thing, and anyone who encountered the link on my Facebook page was greeted with the message that I had been cited for abuse. No way could whoever reported me have actually read the piece.

We come now to a small detail in the U.S. Constitution usually called the confrontation clause, something about facing one’s accuser – or at least knowing what one is accused of. The framers of the Constitution didn’t know about Facebook, whose policy apparently is if someone, anyone, thinks you’ve done a bad, you’re off the page, and that’s the end of that. (You want to talk to someone about it? Try finding a Facebook face you might be able to face, virtually or otherwise.)

I have no immediate plans to sue Facebook. It seems in a way a badge of honor – I mean, how many people to you know who’ve had a post kicked off of Facebook? I am a little sorry about those folks who missed learning of an innovative nonprofit thanks to someone who didn’t bother to do so.

But now that this post is headed to my Facebook status bar, and includes the magic word combination, we wonder if I will be doubly banished.

Stay tuned.

Time flies when… or does it really?

In case you’re wondering what happened to 2009 — personally, I misplaced December, and have some real doubts about several weeks in March and August — maybe you were indeed having fun. Or having too much caffeine. According to an article seductively headlined “Where Did The Time Go? Do Not Ask The Brain” in the New York Times our perception of time can be linked to good times or bad, and the nature of events we peg time’s passage to affects whether it flew like the wind or dragged like a wet mattress. Science Times writer Benedict Carey assembles enough esoteric theories, along with the down-home speculations, to make a few moments vanish while reading.

That most alarming New Year’s morning question — “Uh-oh, what did I do last night?” — can seem benign compared with those that may come later, like “Uh, what exactly did I do with the last year?”

Or, “Hold on — did a decade just go by?”

It did. Somewhere between trigonometry and colonoscopy, someone must have hit the fast-forward button. Time may march, or ebb, or sift, or creep, but in early January it feels as if it has bolted like an angry dinner guest, leaving conversations unfinished, relationships still stuck, bad habits unbroken, goals unachieved.

I think for many people, we think about our goals, and if nothing much has happened with those then suddenly it seems like it was just yesterday that we set them,” said Gal Zauberman, an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business.

Studies of what makes time fly, or seem to, come up with opposite views: too many events that you’re pegging the past 30 days to might telescope them into 20 days. Or maybe your brain does have some control over your perception of time. You didn’t get that project finished on deadline? Well, the day just zoomed by.

In earlier work, researchers found a similar dynamic at work in people’s judgment of intervals that last only moments. Relatively infrequent stimuli, like flashes or tones, tend to increase the speed of the brain’s internal pacemaker.

On an obvious level, these kinds of findings offer an explanation for why other people’s children seem to grow up so much faster than one’s own. Involved parents are all too well aware of every hiccup, split lip and first step in their own children; whereas, seeing a cousin’s child once every few years, without intervening memories, telescopes the time.

On another level, the research suggests that the brain has more control over its own perception of passing time than people may know. For example, many people have the defeated sense that it was just yesterday that they made last year’s resolutions; the year snapped shut, and they didn’t start writing that novel or attend even one Pilates class. But it is precisely because they didn’t act on their plan that the time seemed to have flown away.

By contrast, the new research suggests, focusing instead on goals or challenges that were in fact engaged during the year — whether or not they were labeled as “resolutions” — gives the brain the opportunity to fill out the past year with memories, and perceived time.

My father, who spent his entire life in academia, used to speak of time as “the element that doesn’t exist.” Maybe he was right after all. Maybe that’s what happened to December.

Mind – Research on How the Brain Perceives Time – NYTimes.com.

Birds, Bees and Cell phones

Richard Fagerlund is a man you can trust. Politicians, bankers, automotive industry executives… you can’t always be sure; but you ask a question of Richard Fagerlund and you’re going to get a straightforward answer. He gets a lot of questions. Fagerlund, AKA The Bugman, is a syndicated columnist, author and entomologist who has been involved with pests and pesticides for about four decades. He fields questions, in a column (Ask The Bugman) with a large and trusting audience, about pesky flies and persistent termites and uninvited bedbugs and more. He will tell you how to get rid of them, but you still get the feeling he would never squash one with malice, or consider one less worthy than humankind. He opposes cruelty in any form, to animals of any size.

Thus, when the issue of honey bees (good) v electromagnetic radiation (potentially evil) was raised, it was no surprise that The Bugman would come down firmly on the side of the bees. Turns out, this might be an issue with broad implications for us all. A reader asked The Bugman, several days ago, about a report that cell phones are a cause of colony collapse disorder in honeybees. (Honeybees do more than make honey. Think oranges, lemons and blackberries for starters.)

It is my contention that the main cause of colony collapse disorder in honeybees is from pesticides. Another reason for the population decline in honeybees is believed to be electromagnetic radiation that is emitted from cell phones and wireless towers. According to an article published in the Times of India, a study in Kerala found that cell phone towers caused a rapid decline in their honeybee population and that they could cause a complete collapse of the bee population in 10 years. Dr. Sainuddin Pattazhy, who conducted the study, concluded that the electromagnetic waves from the towers shorted out the navigational abilities of the worker bees so they couldn’t find their way back to their hive after collecting pollen.

A study conducted at Landau University in Germany showed that when cell phones were placed near hives, the bees wouldn’t return to them. Scientists believe the radiation generated by the cell phones was enough to interfere with the bees’ communication system, which are movement patterns, with their hives.

I doubted the contention that cell phones were detrimental to bees when I first heard it. But studies have shown that the electromagnetic fields have an impact on other species as well, including migratory birds that lose their orientation in the radiation.

If the electromagnetic radiation can affect birds, then there is no doubt in my mind it can affect insects as well, including honeybees. We also need to be concerned about our own species. At one time we were convinced that cigarette smoking was harmless. We were wrong with cigarettes, and we need to look carefully at electromagnetic radiation.

The writer of this space, a chain smoker for 20+ years (thankfully long past) and currently a city walker regularly threatened with sudden death by cell phone wielding drivers, comes down firmly on the side of The Bugman and the bees.

Cell phones’ waves found to disorient honeybees.

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