Fighting off dementia

DementiaAlzheimer’s – already afflicting well over 5 million Americans – is expected to claim more than 16 million of us by 2050 if a cure isn’t found. Today it is at the top of the Bad News list of potential diagnoses for almost anyone over 50. Justifiably so, since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports than one in three seniors now die with Alzheimer’s or other dementia.

That’s the bad news.

The good news, explained recently by Patricia Spilman, M.S. at a sold-out Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco, is that there are things one can to do lower the risk, and perhaps slow the progress of the disease. Spilman, who is Staff Scientist at the Buck Institute’s Bredesen Lab, should know. She has spent more than two decades researching neurodegenerative disease, and has written and spoken extensively on Alzheimer’s and related diseases.

“Forgetting,” Spilman says, by way of reassurance, “is normal. You don’t need to remember where you put the car keys last week, or a doctor’s appointment last month.” And studies – including one by Buck Institute founding President and CEO Dale Bredesen M.D. that is fascinating even for a lay reader – suggest that cognitive decline can be slowed, or in some cases reversed.

Spilman’s prepared remarks consisted largely of useful, realistic advice about how to delay the cognitive decline most of us will experience at some point. The audience, ranging from 20-somethings to more than a few senior citizens, was furiously note-taking throughout (or furiously jotting down questions for the Q&A session to follow.)

Exercise – particularly activities that combine movement and navigation such as tennis or golf – is at the top of the list. “It’s easier if you have a partner,” Spilman suggests, “because this adds the important element of socialization. Walking, plus climbing, is particularly good if you try new routes.” More than a few audience members nodded knowingly when Spilman noted the increasing, widespread dependence on mindless GPS. “Take the opportunity to look at a map,” she said.

Cognitive decline can also be offset by paying attention to the critical need for plenty of sleep. To help with a good night’s sleep, Spilman advises allowing at least several hours between eating and going to bed, and having a dark room. Chronic stress is relieved by a combination of exercise and sleep, along with those other preservatives of gray matter, yoga and mindfulness meditation.

Also good for the brain: almost any sensory stimulation. Music, smells, touch. Spilman cites Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, and Norman Cousins’ Anatomy of an Illness, in which Cousins treated himself with comedy as useful reading.

“Do something new every week,” Spilman suggests; “every day. Have goals in later life. Take classes, volunteer, build intergenerational relationships, pursue spirituality, encourage others to change and to grow.”

Computer games can improve cognition also. Spilman did not mention any specific sites, but this writer has enjoyed BrainHQ, and other brainy items from Posit Science’s Karen Merzenich, as well as introductory games on the Lumosity site. Most fascinating of all is the University of California San Francisco (UCSF)’s Brain Health Registry, in which anyone can participate; it’s free, and your brain might wind up helping someone else’s brain one day.

The Q&A segment following Spilman’s talk was fast and full of both personal stories and pertinent questions: “What’s normal decline?” (The difference between not remembering the movie star’s name and not being able to do a job well. You might keep a diary of cognitive function.) “What about genetics – the father-daughter-son factors?” (Yet unproven.) “How about overexposure to electromagnetic fields? (Don’t have unnecessary radiation.) And enough other issues raised for two or three more hours.

No one’s brain, in any event, was idle. Which indicates that everyone in Spilman’s audience was lowering his or her risk of Alzheimer’s.

So many pills… so little memory

If you’ve ever had a serious or chronic illness you know the routine: a line-up of all the little pills beside the breakfast plate, or maybe one of those little-old-lady boxes with a cubicle for each day, or perhaps a high-end color-coded wheel of medical fortune.

Now, it turns out, for a mere $100+ or so you can have a machine that does it all for you. Counts out the pills, spits them into a little cup, rings a bell when it’s time to pop another, calls your family if you skip something. When technology can address an issue, count on someone to perfect it. Even if its complexity boggles the mind.

Actually, for aging adults who must rely on a whole bunch of pills, these devices turn out to be a real boon. We learned this in a news release just out from the Center for Technology and Aging, through its Medication Optimization Position Paper, which is far more useful than its tongue-twisting name would have you believe.

The Center for Technology and Aging, a non-profit organization that was founded in 2009 with a grant from The SCAN Foundation (www.thescanfoundation.org,) is affiliated with the Public Health Institute (www.phi.org). It aims to find and advance technologies that help older adults stay independent and lead healthier lives — including technology for monitoring patients, for helping with tasks, social networking… and keeping track of pills.

It turns out, there are pill-counting wonders of every sort and price range. So if you can’t remember which vitamin comes before which super-drug, or you think Mom and Dad won’t remember, there’s a tech-app for that.

When memory fades, is it all over?

Most of us know the feeling — a mom, a friend, a neighbor who’d seemed just a little spacey for the last few months has taken up residence in a “memory unit.” And some of us (OK, I’m older than you are, so you can relax now) stuff that sorrowful feeling down inside, right next to the fear that arose over where in the world I put the car keys.

Maybe we should all relax. Because anxieties can make you forget even more, and research shows that  “buying into the stereotype that memory function automatically dwindles with age could become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” according to reports just published on a new favorite health/science website of mine, RealAge.com.

At least that’s what happened in one study. When older adults (ages 60 to 70 years) were given cues that people their age tend to suffer from memory loss, they actually performed more poorly on memory tests than a control group not exposed to such cues. Likewise, older adults who felt looked down upon — or stigmatized — due to age also fared poorly on memory tests. Bottom line: Anxious thoughts about negative stereotypes may disrupt your working memory. So think positive!

The site is a new favorite partly because it has a “Find your real age” thing which determined that I am younger than 76.5 and why should one argue. RealAge does concede that positive thinking will not guarantee memory retention, but then plunges right ahead with other suggestions. Such as staying in touch with family and friends:

In a study of 16,638 older adults, people who were married, active in volunteer groups, and in regular contact with friends, family, and neighbors had slower declines in memory than their less social counterparts. In fact, declines in the most socially active types were about half of those in the least social group.

Or eating the right stuff: fish, nuts, real chocolate!; or walking a lot; or, and here’s the winner, taking power naps:

People who take daytime naps outperform non-nappers on memory exercises. And, surprisingly, a mere 6 minutes of shut-eye is enough to refresh the mind. How does a quick catnap power up your thinker? Seems the mere act of falling asleep triggers a brain-boosting neurobiological process that remains effective regardless of how long you snooze.

What’s not to love about a resource that advises hanging out with friends, eating almonds and chocolate and taking power naps? Now, if there were just something in there about where I put the keys…

Expect to Keep Your Memory – Health Tip – realage.com.