You Must Remember This

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If you’re a baby boomer, chances are that you’re losing more than your hearing, hair and skin elasticity. You’re also losing brain cells. Scientists (who really use—and need—their brain cells) already knew this. “The human brain reaches its maximum volume by the age of 20 and then slowly starts shrinking,” says neuropsychologist Cheryl Luis, Ph.D, […]


If you’re a baby boomer, chances are that you’re losing more than your hearing, hair and skin elasticity.

You’re also losing brain cells.

Scientists (who really use—and need—their brain cells) already knew this.

“The human brain reaches its maximum volume by the age of 20 and then slowly starts shrinking,” says neuropsychologist Cheryl Luis, Ph.D, ABPP/CN, associate clinical director at the Sarasota-based Roskamp Institute, an enterprise committed to finding cures for neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders and addictions, with an emphasis on Alzheimer’s. Luis explains that, by the time we hit our late 50s, “Our processing speed begins to slow down and one may notice subtle memory changes, such as difficulty finding words.”

By age 70, research shows that more than 10 percent of the population will suffer from mild cognitive impairment (MCI), characterized by frequent short-term memory lapses. These people are also almost five times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. An estimated five million Americans suffer from this mind-ravaging disease, a figure estimated to triple by mid-century because of aging baby boomers. In case you’re one of them…

Don’t panic.

Degenerative memory loss does not have to be inevitable or develop into Alzheimer’s disease, says Dr. Bruce E. Robinson, chief of geriatrics at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. Although there is no magic-bullet approach to preventing and treating Alzheimer’s disease, researchers are finding that an integrative strategy can offer potential for maintaining cognitive function with aging.

This may be a good time to take a deep breath and do a mental inventory. If you’re having trouble remembering what book you read last night or struggling to recall words and names, chances are you’re experiencing normal, age-related cognitive decline, says Robinson.

“There are marked changes in brain and nervous system functioning that begin in our late 20s,” he says. “The speed of nerve impulses slows down, for one thing—that’s why there aren’t many fastball pitchers in their mid-30s. By the time we reach our 50s and 60s, we begin to notice a slowing down of our mental abilities. We might find ourselves struggling to retrieve information or find the right word.”

OK…great. So, how do you know that forgetting your keys isn’t a sign of something worse?

Robinson’s heard that question before.

“A lot of people fear memory lapses lead to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease,” he says. “But that’s usually not the case if the individual is younger than 65. We have a study that asks older people questions about how they feel about their brain functioning and mental abilities. We observed that, in many cases, it’s the respondents who don’t report any recognition of cognitive impairment who later show signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s. With serious brain disease, you begin to lose clarity of self-awareness. Forgetting where car keys were put may be nothing to worry about. Forgetting what they’re used for is.”

Robinson explains that many things can interfere with brain functioning, but you should never take your brain for granted. Or stop using it.

“The bottom line is everyone is going to lose some degree of memory function as they get older,” Robinson says. “That’s why it’s imperative to do everything you can to maintain your cognitive functioning and brain health at a higher level.”

Factors other than the natural aging process can also be responsible for memory lapses and cognitive impairment, says Luis. “If you’re stressed from too much work, sleep deprived, depressed or taking certain medications, your memory can suffer. As we age, it’s harder to multi-task because of normal aging changes within the brain.”

Luis recommends taking a proactive approach to maintaining our mental abilities. Nutrition, supplements, stress-management techniques such as yoga and meditation, and exercise can all help to maintain and fortify brain health. Monitoring chronic medical conditions such as blood pressure, cholesterol levels and sugar problems is also important. What keeps your heart healthy, she explains, also keeps your brain healthy.

Keeping your brain healthy is the key. Studies show that the loss of mental abilities associated with aging—including problems such as memory loss, sluggish thinking, and difficulties with problem-solving—aren’t inevitable if steps are taken to keep your brain fit.

Remember this: Intelligence is a relative concept and doesn’t always have to do with memory retention. Don’t compare yourself to others. The important question to ask is: Has my cognitive functioning changed enough for me and others to notice a marked difference?

Memory loss is normal with aging. Alzheimer’s disease is just that—a disease. The cognitive loss it creates is far from normal. Know the difference.

“Use it or lose it” really isn’t wishful thinking. It’s a scientific fact. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the largest controlled clinical trial to date found that cognitive “training sessions” improved memory, concentration and problem-solving skills in healthy adults ages 65 and up.

Other studies exploring cognitive decline advocate the breaking up of routines and habits. Dr. Lawrence C. Katz, author of Keep Your Brain Alive, has devised a series of brain exercises he calls “neurobics.” Neurobic exercises encourage us to shake up everyday routines in order to help the brain manufacture its own nutrients that strengthen, preserve and grow brain cells. Katz calls these exercises “brain gym,” and says they can be done anywhere, anytime. Whatever you’re used to doing, try the opposite, he advises. Find your keys in your purse—in the dark. If you drive to work the same way every day, try a different route. Take a shower with your eyes closed. “Your brain is forced to use its attention resources to do what used to be a simple task,” says Katz. “That creates enhanced activity in the brain.”

Spend time mentally exercising your brain, say the experts. Solve crossword puzzles, memorize quotes and passages from literature, memorize long lists of items and engage in games that challenge the mind. These activities both relax the mind and body and sharpen mental acuity.

Diet, too, plays an important role in brain health. Important research points to the negative effects on the brain of a diet high in saturated fat. These studies show that countries with the highest intake of saturated fat and calories also report the highest incidences of Alzheimer’s disease. By contrast, Asian countries, which report the lowest intake of saturated fat, also show the lowest incidences of the disease. Research points to the benefit of eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids to keep the brain healthy.

Both Luis and Robinson recommend regular medical evaluations and memory screenings after the age of 60. The Roskamp Institute and Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s Memory Disorder Clinic offer comprehensive assessments that include physical, neurological and neuropsychological examinations. Brain imaging tests are performed, and laboratory blood work may also be recommended. Following a diagnostic evaluation, treatment options are discussed with the patient and family. Both centers also work with families struggling with the difficult management problems that result from a progressive dementia.

And here’s a final tip: The next time you automatically turn to Wikipedia to look up a fact that you knew you knew but just can’t remember, pause for a few moments and attempt to retrieve it. When you do remember the fact, chances are, you’ll remember it forever.

MIND MATTERS

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s doubles about every five years after age 65, and the risk reaches nearly 50 percent for those older than 85.

Dementia is the most common neurological disorder; more than 4.5 million people in the United States experience it.

BODY TALK

Planning for surgery? Read this first.

When Rosann Argenti underwent surgery, she was unprepared for the physical and emotional roadblocks she encountered prior to and following the procedure. This experience inspired her to share her knowledge with others in her recent book, Surgery: How To Rehearse Before You See The Nurse.

Sure, there have been other books written about surgery, says Argenti, who is also director of the Tai Chi Innerwave Academy. But “this is a comprehensive guide written from the patient’s perspective. How many times can we get straight information from the person who went through it?”

The book guides the reader through the processes of finding the right surgeon, preparing for surgery mentally, physically and emotionally, organizing the hospital stay and planning post-operative care.

It’s all about taking control, says Argenti. “Once you realize you can be an active participant in your medical care, you’ll have the strength and know-how to face the consequences of your condition.”

Among her most important advice:

Educate yourself and ask questions, says Argenti. Talk to the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, the nurses and other patients who have undergone the same surgery. With a road map, your journey will be easier.

Second, prepare your mind and body through proper diet, exercise (she recommends tai chi) and stress-relieving techniques such as massage and meditation. And laugh a lot: “Watch your favorite comedies. Laughter boosts the immune system.”

Finally, pamper yourself—at the hospital and at home. “Bring your favorite pillows, bedclothes, foods and music,” she suggests. And have them waiting for you when you get home so that recuperation will be easy on the spirit.

There’s more—a lot more—but for that you’ll have to read the book.

For more information about Surgery: How To Rehearse Before You See The Nurse, visit www.PracticalSurgeryGuide.com.

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