More than 400 people braved the beginnings of super-storm Sandy in Rochester this past Saturday to learn about how to keep their minds sharp. They left with a lot of information and, perhaps, a bit of the relief that knowledge can bring.
The Staying Sharp program, a joint effort by the regional AARP group and our Dana Alliance for Brain Initiative folks, started with an hour-long Healthy Brain Fair. From 10 am to noon, three experts in geriatrics from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry talked about how our brains grow and age, what to expect, and what might cause worry. But first, we did a little warm up to get our mental motors revving.
[Rochesterians groove John Travolta-style to the BeeGees’ “Staying Alive.” / Photo by Stacey Kratz / AARP NY]
About 10 percent of people over age 60 are diagnosed with a form of dementia (often Alzheimer’s disease). “But the fear is pervasive, and some people live with the idea that they have a 90 percent chance they’ll get it,” said panelist Carol Podgorski. ”This fear of Alzheimer’s disease is really very powerful. We need to put that fear in its place.” She directed people to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s list.
William Hall started with a general description of brains and aging, including a rundown of buzzwords like plasticity and neurogenesis. “This brain is not just this mass of fat tissue, but it’s actually a factory that is constantly rearranging itself,” he said. The rate of learning may be faster or slower, but, he said, “You can never learn too much.”
Some of the gears of memory do seem to slip as we get older, though; nearly everyone in the audience raised a hand when Hall asked if we’d ever forgotten someone’s name, or where we put our keys. But to remember, pointed out panelist Lisa Boyle, you have to first be paying attention; perhaps using a mental “head’s-up, this name is important” might help.
“There are some benign, very mild changes that happen to our cognition as we get older, but it’s not all doom and gloom,” Boyle said. “All of us have had memory slips, here and there. It can take longer to process information. Don’t try to rush; don’t try to pack everything in. Allow yourself some time.”
Also, anything competing for our attention, like stress, distraction, and especially trying to do too many tasks at once, can short-circuit our attempts to encode the memory of the main thing we’re doing. “It’s really OK not to multitask,” Boyle said.
Podgorski agreed, pointing out that part of paying attention is filtering out distraction. “The amount of information we have to filter in our society is so great” that we can worry that we aren’t remembering what we saw on CNN last night, when CNN’s display alone carries audio from one event, a text crawl on the bottom about something else, and an ad on the side. Which one was our brain supposed to remember? “It’s a harder job to do, because there’s so much stimulation all the time,” she said.
Some medical conditions, such as low thyroid, hormone imbalance, inflammation, and depression, can also damage memory. But that damage can be reversible, said Hall, once the condition is treated. His main take-away: “Build a good relationship with your primary care physician” so he or she can track your progress and advise how to prevent potential trouble. Primary-care doctors also know what clinical trials are out there, and can help their patients into drug or behavior studies. He also reiterated the Four Factors to Stay Sharp: Mental challenge, physical challenge (exercise), social engagement, and managing heart health and vascular risk.
All three panelists, as well as the moderator, AARP’s Bill Armbruster, also emphasized how fortunate people around Rochester are. They have free access to programs like Eldersource, which offers advice for seniors that ranges from basics of daily living and transportation to medical and end-of-life decisions. Hospitals and research facilities in the area are doing a range of basic and clinical research that people can learn about and volunteer for. “We’re a community rich in clinical studies and community resources,” said Hall. People elsewhere who wish to volunteer to help scientists learn more about health and disease can check out “find a clinical trial near you,” hosted by the Alzheimer’s Association.
The next session of Staying Sharp was scheduled for this Saturday, Nov. 3, in Brentwood, NY, but superstorm Sandy caused it, too, to be posponed. But the next-next session, Saturday, Dec. 1, in White Plains, NY, is still on.
– Nicky Penttila