Diet, exercise and Alzheimers

These paragraphs are a segue from talk of holiday festivities, over the past several days,  into the very un-festive subject of Alzheimer’s disease.

Part of the conversation at the very festive Thanksgiving dinner I was lucky to enjoy (without having cooked a single dish!) centered around food for the brain. One argument was that the good stuff for one’s neurotransmitters — egg yolks, broccoli, soy, starches — should be meticulously watched. I heard my mother’s voice in my head in response. “If you have three meals a day that look pretty on the plate,” she liked to advise, “you’re getting the proper diet.” When pressed she would explain that “pretty” equates to “color-coordinated,” i.e.: toast/bacon/scrambled eggs with parsley; or broccoli/carrots/potatoes/hamburger. I can’t remember whether our plates were 9-inch or otherwise.

Then there is the larger issue of exercise. Fitness, and occasionally brain exercise, have been contemplated several times in this space over the past few months (10/5: How’s your brain fitness today?; 9/7: The new best thing.) These theories hold that it is possible to strengthen, possibly even build anew, those neurotransmitters.

The definitive word on all this has not been written, and answers surely won’t originate with someone who barely passed Science I-II for the math/science requirement of her BA in Art. But some fascinating studies are being done, and new American Recovery and Reinvestment Funds will be going to projects that will be the focus of this space tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Alzheimer’s and various forms of dementia remain the ultimate tragedy in millions of lives, diet and brain exercise and clean living in general notwithstanding.

One of the most poignant insights into this disease you’ll be likely ever to see is currently offered by the PBS series Life (Part 2.) It follows a beautiful, articulate woman named Mary Ann Becklenberg as she confronts her own decline with incredible courage. What science may find answers for in the next few years, Mary Ann Becklenberg is exploring in real time. Schedules and clips are on the Life (Part 2) website.

Chances are, whether you’re over 50 or not, your life will be impacted by dementia. I, for one, am grateful for science and for Mary Ann Becklenberg.

How's your brain fitness today?

Pick five random numbers, say them out loud. Now say them backward. No fair using props. You have now exercised your brain, and your brain appreciates it.

Alvaro Fernandez, co-founder and CEO of SharpBrains, author of The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness, enthusiastic speaker on healthy brains and how to keep them, addressed a group at the New York Library — great spot for exercising brains — recently and another in San Francisco a few days later. If you’ve ever despaired over forgetfulness or worried about some day getting Alzheimer’s, Mr. Fernandez will brighten your day. Much as the gym trainers promise you your muscles can be strengthened, Alvaro Fernandez can convince you those neurons can multiply and prosper. With an energy and demeanor to match his several degrees, he may one day be the Jack Lalanne of brain fitness.

The San Francisco audience was made up of members of San Francisco Village, the second such aging-in-place organization in California. (Other village-concept communities are springing up across the country, preferred options for many seniors who want to stay in their homes.) Most of them highly active and engaged, they were receptive to Fernandez’ proposals about how to stay that way.

Fernandez began by offering facts to debunk a few popular myths about brain function: Lifelong neuroplasticity means we can always help our brains evolve through lifestyle and activities; brain function can be affected by a variety of things, from yoga to cognitive therapy; and nothing is carved in stone that says brains deteriorate with age. In short, you might not be able to avoid Alzheimer’s completely if it’s in your genes and your karma, but you might well be able to forestall it with vigorous exercise.

Four “pillars of maintenance” will keep the brain fit, Fernandez says: good nutrition, stress managment, physical exercise and brain exercise. Potato chips and TV are not on the pillars list. The best comment of the event, in fact, probably came from author/healthy aging expert and SF Village advisory board member Walter Bortz, MD, who quoted a Harvard study that revealed “watching TV is like staring at a brick wall.”

Your brain is, when you come right down to it, not interested in the TV.

Brain Fitness: The New Best Thing

At a program on Assistive Technology for Seniors sponsored by the Commonwealth Club of California yesterday, four panelists at least one generation away from 50 themselves discussed the technological wonders being perfected by their contemporaries for the likes of boomers and beyonders. (Devices that tell your children across the country how many times you open the refrigerator; nifty machines to compute and address your every need…) But for some of us, the handsome twenty-something geek talking about brain fitness made the most newly-revealed sense. OK, maybe he’s 30-something, but not very something if so.

“Exercising your brain in very specific ways,” said Eric Mann, Vice President of Marketing for Posit Science, ” will be recognized within the years ahead as just as important as cardiovascular exercise.” The brain is not an organ condemned to progressive deterioration, he explained, but something evolving every day. Pointing out that mind and body are the two assets with which everyone comes equipped, Mann urged his largely gray-haired audience to understand that both need to be maximized through ongoing exercise.

To that end, his company has thus far created programs titled Brain Fitness, DriveSharp (brain/foot/hand fitness?) and InSight.

The program went back and forth between those sorts of brain-governed assists for our rapidly aging population — the percentage of Americans over 65 increases every day — to the computer-assisted living which is coming, ready-or-not, onto the scene. In what would surely have been proclaimed la-la land a decade or two ago, assistive technologies at one’s fingertips already include personal emergency response systems (esthetically improved over the “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” necklace, cell phones with a button that alerts your five first choices), medication management systems (electronic pillboxes that do everything but pop the right dosage into your mouth) and senior-friendly e-mail options for the internet-averse.

The thought of all that technological wonder was enough to induce brain-weariness in some audience members who occasionally wish they had the “Number, please” telephone lady back. But because such an attitude might fall into a category Mr. Mann referenced in passing as  “maladaptive compensatory behavior,” most went home willing to hear it all as good news. And to ramp up the exercising of their brains.

More on those technological wonders in a following blog.