September 17, 2012

Memory: Two Updates

At 83, I count my blessings that I am
  • still living in my own house, 
  • managing quite well on my own, 
  • enjoying a pretty jam-packed retirement, 
  • coping well with my various afflictions, and 
  • feeling happy and contented most of the time
I've got two progressive diseases -- Parkinson's and prostate cancer -- but strangely enough I don't spend much time worrying about them. I worry more that the lousy short-term memory I've had most of my life is getting worse. Dementia – and its more acute cousin, Alzheimer’s – are my greatest fears.

Two articles about memory recently hit my inbox. One gave encouraging news about brain structure; the other focused on the role of genetics.

Brain Cells Don’t Keep Dying Off as We Age
Last month, a Johns Hopkins "Health Alert" reported that our brains do not experience a massive loss of cells as we get older, contrary to long-held beliefs. In fact, as science progresses, we learn more and more about the brain’s amazing plasticity – its ability to grow and change, and even “heal” itself.

Maybe most encouraging of all, there is considerable growth of new cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that consolidates our memories.

The article makes the point that our brains are organs, like our hearts and lungs. Brains are affected by the same things -- like diet and exercise -- that affect our other organs. While it may not be “news,” it’s good to read again that we have some measure of control over the quality and duration our memories, through the lifestyle choices we make.

What We Don’t Control: Genes
Another article was reported by Dr. Shari Barnett of ABC News. She told the story of Ralph Light, 94, an active gardener, living with his wife of 68 years, reader of two or three novels a week... and brother of four siblings who lived long, dementia-free lives.

Barnett reports on a study conducted by Mount Sinai School of Medicine, which examined 277 dementia-free male veterans, all 75 or older, to measure levels of C-reactive protein. Higher levels of this substance are associated with increased dementia risk. The question becomes: how have men with high levels of C-reactive protein – who also have no evidence of cognitive impairment – managed to develop some kind of “immunity” to dementia? The answer could have powerful implications in the quest for treatment, and even prevention, of Alzheimer's.

This study, and another similar follow-up investigation, included interviews with relatives of these mentally healthy vets with high C-reactive protein levels. Results were not surprising: the study subjects who were “resistant” to high C-reactive protein levels were 30% less likely to have relatives with dementia.

Yes, it's another validation that our DNA deals us a hand we’re stuck with. But we can still play it cleverly.

Dr. John Messmer, associate professor of family and community medicine at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, Pennsylvania, commented on the study:
Mr. Light's family likely has a good genetic profile plus a lifetime of physical activity and is not overweight or a smoker. And he is engaged in life. All the research being done on dementia may one day help us to understand it better, but for now, there are basic recommendations to reduce one's risk: do not use tobacco, maintain a strictly normal weight (BMI under 25), exercise regularly, eat a diet high in vegetables and fruits, stay engaged in the community.
Check, check, check, and check.

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