Work your brain to make it last

My father’s Alzheimer’s

Facing my father’s possible legacy of dementia

Jeannette Franks, PhD

When there is dementia in the family, it strikes fear into the adult children as they age. Every time a key is misplaced or the fridge is opened with the question, “what was I looking for?” it’s terrifying to think, “Has it started? Is it happening to me?”

Fortunately there are many factors that predict Alzheimer’s and genetic heritage is one of the least indicative. One of the strongest predictors of Alzheimer’s disease is low level of education Those with a low level of education also happen to be many of the people who voted for Trump.

The other major commonality of those diagnosed with dementia is age over 90.

First, to clarify, dementia is an umbrella term for any type of brain dysfunction. It could be Parkinson’s, it could be malnutrition, it could be alcoholism or a host of other maladies. It is now thought that everyone with Parkinson’s will ultimately get Lewy Bodies, a brain malfunction that manifests itself much like Alzheimer’s but appears differently in brain imaging.

Often brain dysfunction is directly correlated with cardio-vascular health. Indeed there are recent studies that indicate that vigorous exercise 5 times a week predicts a significantly lower incidence of Alzheimer’s. Now there’s a good reason to go to the gym! Or run! Or Zumba! Or whatever can get you working hard physically and you will do it consistently.

Healthy habits, such as good nutrition, moderate use of alcohol, and not smoking all are associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s. Adequate sleep and mental stimulation are also important.

Being bi-lingual, singing or playing a musical instrument seriously, and life-long learning are also predicative of a lower rate of Alzheimer’s. A recent study by Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northwestern University suggests that whether the effort is physical or mental, what helps the brain is “to work hard at something.”

Let’s all get to work in the new year. This planet needs it!

Published by jeannettefranks

Jeannette Franks, PhD, is a passionate gerontologist and for over 20 years has taught ethics, grief and loss, and courses on geriatrics and gerontology for the University of Washington. Franks' most recent book is, To Move or To Stay Put: A Guide for Your Last Decades. Look for it now on the University Bookstore website It is also available at Eagle Harbor Books on Bainbridge. Franks previously published a definitive guide to independent and assisted living titled Washington Retirement Options, and often speaks on retirement options, disability issues, end-of-life issues and is an advocate for accessibility. She has a goal of making Bainbridge an elder-friendly community and is available to groups and families to discuss these issues. She served for nine years on the Kitsap County Advisory Council on Aging and Long-term Care. She also has the privilege of working in a small way for the past 15 years with the Suquamish tribal elders.

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