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.

Food for brain-healthy thought — and Happy 4th of July Picnic to you

Ketchup alongside French fried potatoes
Image via Wikipedia

Just when you start thinking hot dogs, french fries and toasted marshmallows for the summer, along come other viewpoints. But this space is all about dialog.

Reader Cato, in response to the alcohol cause-for-harm tax referenced below, suggests a fat tax — which would surely tax the enjoyment of your 4th of July potato salad and homemade ice cream. More useful is a new feature just instituted over at the Posit Science folks’ blog site: Brain Healthy Recipes.  French fried potatoes need not apply.

But as it turns out, there are plenty of foods — spinach, nuts, garlic (!), carrots and more — that can shape up your brain. Research has shown, says blogger Marghi Merzenich, that foods containing certain nutrients can boost memory, alertness, and have other benefits for brain health.

As it further turns out, a lot of brain-healthy items make pretty tasty dishes. Over at the Amen Clinic site (that’s Daniel G. Amen, MD, certainly a fine name for a brainy doctor) you can find recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner including Dorie’s Truly Amazing Lamb, Beans and Rice, or the Homemade Turkey Jerky which Dr. Amen professes to eat all the time when he’s writing. He’s got a LOT more published books than this writer, so perhaps I should whip up a little turkey jerky.

The EatingWell folks also have an assortment of brain-healthy recipes, plus menus in groups beginning with prenatal and extending through geezer.

Some of these even fall within my three basic food groups: caffeine, ice cream and chocolate — or at the least, allow a dollop of espresso. Hope your picnic is a merry, and brain-healthy time.

Brain exercises oversold, study says

What? Brain exercises aren’t all they’re cracked up to be? Bah, humbug. But indeed, according to the Wall Street Journal‘s Gautam Naik in a recent article, “a large new study casts doubt on whether such programs can deliver what they promise.”

The hallmark of a good brain-training program isn’t whether it simply improves a person’s ability to do the specific mental tasks in the training, but whether it also boosts other cognitive skills. The latest study, published in the journal Nature, found no evidence for such cognitive transfers.

“Our brain-training groups got better at the tests they practiced, and the more they practiced, the better they got. But there was no translation to any improvements in general cognitive function,” said study co-author Jessica Grahn, a scientist at the Medical and Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, England. The unit has close links to the University of Cambridge.

Full disclosure: Posit Science CEO Steven Aldrich (quoted below) provided this geezer-driver writer with his company’s DriveSharp program at no charge. Whenever I can snatch some time (unfortunately that is seldom in 30-minute segments) I work on brain-training computer exercises designed to make me a safer driver.  This is anecdotal and unscientific, but I believe it has made a small improvement.

But back to the study.

The brain-training field has been boosted by studies suggesting that even adult brains are “plastic,” and cognitive ability can be improved with the right mental training. Another spur is an aging population, and the hope that cognitive exercises and lifestyle changes may help to forestall brain maladies such as Alzheimer’s disease.

The authors of the Nature study point out that some modest benefits to cognitive abilities have been reported in studies of older people, preschool children and videogame players who outperform nonplayers on some tests of visual attention. But wider empirical support has been lacking, they said.

The six-week online study involved 11,430 healthy participants, all viewers of a BBC television science program. They were first tested for their existing “benchmark” cognitive abilities, and then randomly assigned to one of three groups, each with a different set of tasks.

One group took part in online games aimed at improving skills linked to general intelligence, such as reasoning, problem-solving and planning. A second test group did exercises to boost short-term memory, attention and mathematical and visual-spatial skills—functions typically targeted by commercial brain-training programs. A third “control group” was asked to browse the Internet and seek out answers to general knowledge questions.

The conclusion: Those who did the brain-training exercises improved in the specific tasks that they practiced. However, their improvement was generally no greater than the gains made by the control group surfing the Internet. And none of the groups showed evidence of improvement in cognitive skills that weren’t specifically used in their tasks.

This study may be in, but the jury is still out. Proponents cite other sources and other studies in this still-new field, most aimed at helping the aging population keep up memory function and stave off general decline. And sites maintaining that it’s possible to build new brain cells continue to proliferate. Critics of the new study weighed in:

Some critics said the study’s design was flawed. For example, the participants were asked to do brain workouts for at least 10 minutes a day, three times a day, for six weeks. But that may not have been long enough.

“It’s not brain training,” said Alvaro Fernandez, chief executive officer of SharpBrains. Past studies, he said, indicate that proper cognition transfer “only happens after more than 15 hours of training and where each session lasts at least 30 minutes.”

Steven Aldrich, chief executive of Posit Science of San Francisco, which sells brain-training programs, said the “study overreaches in generalizing that since their methods did not work, all methods would not work.” Mr. Aldrich added that other randomized, peer-reviewed studies have shown that brain training improves some aspects of brain performance.

Given the growing aging population and its accompanying mental struggles, from Where did I leave the keys? to fears of Alzheimer’s, this space endorses all efforts to better the brain cells. I’m still working on my driving and in favor of giving a game a try.

Study Finds Mental Exercise Offers Brain Limited Benefits – WSJ.com.

Girl drivers more aggressive than boys – and texting, loud music now the norm

My 19-year-old granddaughter, who totaled her car a few months ago, swears she wasn’t texting at the time. Well… maybe the music was playing a little loud. She was unhurt, didn’t hit anyone else or damage anything other than her late lamented car, so there are a lot of blessings to count. But does she text occasionally? “Everybody does.” And in general, besides the decibel level, and the phone which is an extension of her left hand, a shrinking violet she is not. I hasten to say this is a young woman I greatly love and admire; she may also be typical of today’s teenage girl drivers.

Some big auto insurers are raising the rates they charge to cover teenage girls, reflecting the crumbling of conventional wisdom that young women are more responsible behind the wheel.

In a survey of teenage drivers, Allstate Insurance Co. found that 48% of girls said they are likely to drive 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. By comparison, 36% of the boys admitted to speeding. Of the girls, 16% characterized their own driving as aggressive, up from 9% in 2005. And just over half of the girls said they are likely to drive while talking on a phone or texting, compared to 38% of the boys.

The results were “a surprise to many people,” says Meghann Dowd of the Allstate Foundation, an independent charitable organization funded by Allstate which sponsored the survey.

While teens fessed up about their own bad behavior, they also said their friends drive even worse. The study found that 65% of the respondents, male and female, said they are confident in their own driving skills, but 77% said they had felt unsafe when another teen was driving. Only 23% of teens agree that most teens are good drivers. This suggests teens recognize in their friends the dubious and dangerous behavior they won’t admit to indulging in themselves.

A few interesting findings of the new survey:

16% of girls describe their driving as aggressive, up from 9% in 2005.

84% of girls are likely to adjust music selection or volume while driving, versus only 69% of boys.

82% of teens report using cell phones while driving.

23%of teens admit they have felt unsafe with another teen’s driving.

23% of teens agree that most teens are good drivers.

More teens (22%) consider parents in the car more distracting than having their friends in the car (14%).

OK, geezer drivers (this one is still working on the DriveSharp program we all hope is building neurons in my brain and helping me expand my useful field of view) are an admitted hazard on the road. But this new data about our grandchildren isn’t terribly encouraging either. It’s a scary road out there.

Girls Say They Speed, Drive Aggressively More than Boys – WSJ.com.

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.