Sandra Bond Chapman Ph.D.

Make Your Brain Smarter

Making Noise About Alzheimer's

How leading edge research is advancing efforts against this formidable foe

Posted Mar 13, 2014

Distressed that so few senators were attending a hearing at the capitol recently on Alzheimer's, actor Seth Rogen, whose mother-in-law has the disease, voiced his frustration. "All those empty seats are senators who are not prioritizing Alzheimer's," he said. "Unless more noise is made, it won't change."

In fact, a recent study suggests the true toll of Alzheimer's disease may top half a million lives a year—making the brain disease number three on the list of America's top killers behind heart disease and cancer.

So I'm taking Rogen's advice and making some noise—by bringing you up to date on research and by recommending steps you can take right now to reduce your own risk of cognitive decline.

Alzheimer's is a frightening diagnosis. The disease attacks the intellect, the memory, and eventually, the very identity of a person. Alzheimer's is progressive, leading from mild cognitive impairment to increasingly poor judgment and memory loss, and ultimately to the inability to care for oneself or communicate with others.

With life expectancy increasing and the baby boomer generation getting older, more Americans than ever are at risk. The number of people age 65 and older with the disease is expected to increase 40 percent by 2025, to 7.1 million people, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Roughly one in nine older Americans will be afflicted.

But, in the midst of all that is depressing about Alzheimer's, scientific breakthroughs are bringing new hope for those living with the disease and those at risk of developing it. Research underway at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas is contributing to solutions that will one day prevent, help to earlier diagnose and treat Alzheimer's disease effectively.

Our research shows that cognitive decline is not an inevitable consequence of living longer; it can often be stopped, slowed or even reversed. Adults of any age can adopt healthy habits that promote optimum brain performance.

Both mental and physical exercise boost brain function. You may already know that vigorous cardiovascular exercise increases blood flow to the part of the brain that controls memory, improving recall and concentration. But a mental "workout" can also rev up your critical-reasoning skills. All that is required is to think more deeply about books you read, movies you see or conversations you have. Think of major themes and relate them to situations in your own life. Or try to sum up large amounts of incoming information in a few key sentences.

And a caution to the baby boomers—and everyone else—addicted to smartphones and other technological intrusions: Multitasking is detrimental to your brain's health. So take a deep breath, exhale and treat your brain to downtime for at least five minutes, five times a day.

Our researchers are working to identify people in the preclinical phases of Alzheimer's disease, before symptoms show up, by characterizing certain markers in the brain related to memory deficits. They are testing people with mild cognitive impairment, an early memory disorder, to determine how their brains differ from those of healthy older adults. Early identification of those at risk for Alzheimer's and those in its early stages will help physicians prescribe treatments that can slow or stop progression of the disease.

Our scientific team is conducting randomized trials to determine whether cognitive stimulation can significantly slow or reverse mental decline and brain losses that have been documented in healthy aging. The immediate goal is to delay disease onset and to shorten the time living with considerable cognitive impairment after diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease or other dementias.

And finally, some tips for caregivers. First, instead of focusing on diminishing abilities, appreciate the things that are still possible. Since the disease is progressive, Alzheimer's sufferers may have a number of years of slowly declining cognitive function before they enter the most severe phase that requires more intensive care. During most of the disease, you can keep them mentally active by bringing them into your conversations. Encourage them to continue their hobbies and stay engaged in activities and relationships for short but frequent periods of time. Be involved in their lives without talking about them or for them as if they were not there.

Above all, celebrate your loved ones who are afflicted with Alzheimer's. While they may slowly lose ability to show they remember, giving them context and sharing memories and photos of fun times about your time together will help keep their spirits and personalities alive long after the disease has run its course. Also understand that they are "living in the moment." Until the late stages, they are feeling normal human emotions. It is memory that is majorly impaired until later disease stages.

Alzheimer's is a formidable foe. But our research is leading to a better understanding of Alzheimer's and ultimately, to protocols to add longevity to brain performance in brain disease, health or injury. And that is news worth making noise about.

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