braiNY: Staying Sharp in NYC

Wednesday was the third day of Brain Awareness Week (BAW), a global campaign to increase public awareness about the progress and benefits of brain research. As part of the week-long celebration, the Dana Foundation joined forces with New York University and AARP to host a free Staying Sharp session and brain fair on March 13th at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. The event featured an expert panel discussion and Q&A on the aging brain, memory, and brain health issues. This particular panel consisted of three NYU clinicians from the Pearl I. Barlow Center for Memory Evaluation and Treatment who work with elderly patients on health issues including dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.

The event started off with an eight minute workout from a certified personal fitness trainer, which helped the audience loosen up and interact. We all gave each other knowing smiles as familiar songs, such as the theme to “Rocky,” prompted us to punch the air in rhythm.

After our warm up, we settled into our seats to hear what the experts had to say about the aging brain. In a brief description of brain function, we learned that by the time you are 65, you’ve already started to experience slight brain changes. The changes, the panelist explained, could lead to mood changes, depression, and other forms of cognitive change. Below are some highlights from the session, including information about the aging brain:

Am I just forgetful or is it Alzheimer’s disease or dementia?

How do you know if you have a memory problem due to aging? I’m in my 30s and I sometimes forget where I parked my car and can’t always remember what I was about to say. I don’t think it’s a cause for concern (I probably have too much going on in my mind), and thankfully one of the panelists said that occasional forgetfulness is nothing to be overly concerned about. But she did note that in her practice, “The most common complaint in older patients is forgetfulness,” and her job is to determine if that forgetfulness is medically significant. A memory-related behavior that can be of concern is when patients keep repeating themselves, she said.

The good news is memory loss doesn’t always happen with aging. “Just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean you will lose your memory,” the clinician assured everyone. “There’s a lot of variability when it comes to forgetfulness and aging… When the loss of intellect occurs for six months to a year and interferes with everyday activities, it’s possibly dementia.”

For Alzheimer’s disease, the clinicians agreed that the two biggest risk factors for this disease are out of our control: getting older and genetics. With people living longer (over the age of 80), more people will develop Alzheimer’s. There are FDA-approved Alzheimer’s drugs on the market; however, the drugs only help to manage symptoms, not reverse or prevent the disease, said one panelist.

A few tips for improving memory

“In order to remember something, you first have to learn it,” said a panelist. “If you don’t pay attention at any age, you won’t take the information in,” she explained. Some tips for remembering information are: prevent distractions, repeat the information, use visual associations as cues, and write things down.

Certain lifestyle choices can also lead to improved and better sustained memory. Exercise is great for the brain, and walking was championed by one panelist as the best form for seniors. She recommended brisk walking for 40 minutes, three times per week. Maintaining healthy eating habits, staying socially active, and challenging your mind were also recommended.

In closing, the panelists agreed that if you think you have a memory problem, first and foremost you should contact your physician for a check-up. He or she can refer you to a specialist, if necessary, for follow-up testing.

After the panel discussion and Q&A ended, audience members joined other participants at the brain fair held outside auditorium. The fair was hosted by NYU students (many wearing cute brain hats!) who are members of NYU’s Neuroscience Outreach Group, and it featured different tables with information about brain topics such as addiction, brain cells, and brain anatomy.

Brain anatomy

Brain anatomy2

For more Brain Awareness Week (BAW) events in New York, please visit the braiNY website. For BAW pictures on Instagram, check the hashtags for #brainweek, #danafoundation, #BebraiNY, #brainawarenessweek. Also be sure to “Like” the Dana Foundation BAW Facebook page.

If you missed this Staying Sharp, but want to hear more, a video of this session is forthcoming and will be posted online. There’s also another Staying Sharp event for BAW that will take place today (March 15), from 4-6pm at the Hunter College West Building, Lecture Hall 714W (on 68th and Lexington Ave.).

For more information about memory, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia, visit the Dana Foundation’s BrainWeb. You can also read the Staying Sharp booklets online (scroll down to the bottom of the page).

– Blayne Jeffries

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