Not necessarily doomed to dementia

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinions – Not necessarily doomed to dementia: Maintaining a healthy mind takes work, but consider the alternative
Published on Wednesday, Jan. 06, 2010. Last updated on Thursday, Jan. 07, 2010.   Lloyd Axworthy and Denise Ommanney

So, the onset of dementia among baby boomers, now on the cusp of becoming the new elders of society, has been exposed by a recent report as exacting an astronomical toll of personal tragedy and societal cost.

It seems, from the response on this newspaper’s website, that the reaction from Canadians has been a mix of incredulity and resignation to an unpleasant fate. Some respondents find in the stark warning proof of a conspiracy by the left or the right; others attribute the rise in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease to too much mercury in our diets, too many cellphones clasped to our ears, the breakdown of the nuclear family or the effects of seasonal flu shots.

But what is most disturbing is the commentators’ pervasive sense of resignation: This is the way it is and “I am ready to get on my particular segment of ice floe and drift into oblivion.”

What’s missing in such responses is any reference to the fact that the Rising Tide Report, commissioned by the Alzheimer’s Society, recommends a number of approaches to lessen the burden of dementia on society and on families. Indeed, its first recommendation is education to promote healthier lifestyles, particularly physical and mental exercise, that can delay the onset of dementia. Some preventive strategies also have potential for reducing massive public expense in the delivery of care.

The watchword is brain fitness, a combination of methods and lifestyle factors that can revitalize the brain and add many years of active functioning in later life. This is not wishful thinking but based on recent research that shows the brain to be more resilient than we ever thought and capable of getting better and stronger through and beyond middle age.

Just a few days ago, The New York Times reported on a series of findings from reputable scientists on how to age with an active brain. They say brain function can be improved at any time and the best way to keep an old brain in tune is by continually exposing ourselves to novel ideas and experiences, “to move beyond stuff we know and challenge our perception of the world.”

Our own experience in teaching a brain-fitness program at the University of Winnipeg to people enrolled in our 55 Plus Program shows that the issue of age-related decline weighs heavily on people’s minds. Older adults are worried and don’t know what to do. Yet they are very eager to have the information and tools so as to take charge of their own brain health.

What has been most gratifying is seeing how a 10-week course can alter perceptions and attitudes, leading to a commitment to keep up the practice of brain fitness. Maintaining a healthy brain takes work, but considering the alternative, it’s worth it.

We all want to stay alert and mentally fit. The point is that there is now a growing understanding of how recent scientific discoveries about the brain can be applied to rescue and revive the aging brain, promoting vital cognitive functioning throughout one’s lifespan.

Sadly, this point seems to be missed by every sector of society. And while there is every good reason to be alert to the necessity of preparing care initiatives, the clear and immediate response should be to inaugurate a preventive strategy that can substantially reduce the onslaught of debilitation that the Rising Tide Report predicts will occur if no action is taken.

So this is fundamentally an issue of public policy and corporate responsibility. The immediate challenge is to have governments set a framework of co-operative effort involving public-health agencies, universities and colleges, non-profit groups and the private sector. All need to mobilize around strategies that use the latest scientific findings to prepare boomers for the reality of aging, involving them in a program of education that refits them for their advancing years.

The Alzheimer’s Society has issued a wake-up call. We all need to listen.

Lloyd Axworthy is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. Denise Ommanney is a lecturer at the university.

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