Use It or Lose It

MONMOUTH -- Phyllis Harriman reads the newspaper from beginning to end on a daily basis. She's a puzzle and brain teaser fanatic who plays whatever she gets her hands on.


Research shows there are easy steps seniors can take to prevent or reverse cognitive decline. An 11-week "Brain Builder" class at Monmouth Senior Center is being taught by a team from Western Oregon University to teach "cognitively stimulating activities."

MONMOUTH -- Phyllis Harriman reads the newspaper from beginning to end on a daily basis. She's a puzzle and brain teaser fanatic who plays whatever she gets her hands on.

"I do Sudoku every day," the 80-year-old Monmouth resident said. "I play it on my iPhone instead of paper."

That affinity for staying sharp runs in her blood -- her mother was a habitual crossword puzzle solver. But for Harriman, this is about more than just a fun distraction.

Harriman's family has had a long history of members developing serious dementia with age. She's doing everything she can to avoid that.

"I've watched my grandmother develop Alzheimer's disease, my mother and her three sisters," she said. "Mom would mistake day for night and get lost in a town she had been in for years.

"I know a lot about it and it scares the daylights out of me."


Individuals start losing brain cells in their 20s. And the body makes fewer chemicals needed to make the cells you still possess work. These changes affect how the brain stores memory.

Photo by Pete Strong

Phyllis Harriman, left, and Jan Warden look over their homework - a word scramble - together during a "Brain Builder" class at the Monmouth Senior Center Thursday.

For example, you might forget the address of a place you just exited.

Half of our memory ability in older adulthood is related to genetics; not much can be done about that. But there are plenty of behavioral choices adults can make in middle-age and as seniors to beef up their mental acumen and decrease dementia, said Rob Winningham, a professor of psychology at Western Oregon University.

Professor Rob Winningham

It's not overly complicated, either -- physical exercise and habits such as writing, games or developing a hobby are things that make a difference. Essentially, the "use-it-or-lose-it" cliche rings true.

"If you catch mild cognitive impairment early on, you can reverse it quite a bit," Winningham said. "If you wait for a person who has mid-stage dementia, the benefits are much less."

Winningham has earned national renown for research on applied memory issues during the past 18 years, particularly in brain injury patients and the elderly.

He runs a cognitive rehabilitation team that assists with studies and coordinates memory programs for area retirement communities.

The team -- comprised primarily of WOU students -- is currently teaching an 11-week "Brain Builder" class at Monmouth Senior Center to demonstrate "cognitively stimulating activities."

Those activities are the regular things a person leading an active life might do, such as travel, hobbies or volunteering. The other category entails computer applications and exercises that target word generation, attention span and problem solving that targets cognitive functions.

Winningham said a cognitive stimulation program delivered three days a week by his team to a control group of seniors showed their ability to make "new memories" improved by 15 percent.

Photo by Pete Strong

Sudoku puzzles and word searches can be help prevent dementia and memory loss, according to research.

Regular physical exercise -- whether you're doing so or not -- and nutrition are other variables in the memory loss equation. The healthier your habits are, the less likely you are to experience memory problems, Winningham said.

Percentage-wise, Winningham said there is less prevalence of memory problems among the older generation today -- due perhaps to an exercise and nutrition push in the last several years.

"But we have more older adults than ever before," he said. "Because of that, we'll have a greater number of people with memory problems."

There were 5.5 million sufferers of Alzheimer's last year, up from 4 million a decade ago, Winningham said.

It's rare that an individual in their 50s or 60s would develop serious memory impairments; the biggest problem is for the 70 and older set, Winningham said.

And it's normal to forget somebody's name or not remember an appointment from time to time.

Repeatedly forgetting such things or often asking people to repeat their questions or extreme distraction during a task could be a sign of a more serious problem.

What makes memory loss such a tricky issue is the difficulty in determining serious from normal memory loss. Winningham said those in the earliest stages of dementia often write continuous notes or reminders for everything -- that can mask the ordeal.

"Spouses often work together to support memory impairments," he said. "They remember things they need to do, finish parts of each other's stories and take care of one another.

Photo by Pete Strong

Ronald Ryden, a WOU student and member of Rob Winningham's "cognitive rehabilitation team," outlines a Sudoku exercise to the class at the Monmouth Senior Center on Jan. 10 as geriatric wellness instructor Tes Sensibaugh (in yellow) looks on.

"But sometimes that makes it harder for children to recognize if there's a problem."

A former teacher, Harriman enrolled in an Alzheimer's research study at Oregon Health & Science University. She's tested annually and taught thinking and listening skills. So far, so good, she said.

"I try to keep my mind active, I take yoga at the senior center," she said

Still, "you get to a certain stage in life where you forget your car keys and all of the sudden you're worried if it's something you need to worry about," she said.

Why Stay Physically Active?

A study on dementia published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003 that spanned 20 years showed that older adults in a study group who reported doing the greatest number of cognitively stimulating leisure activities were 63 percent less likely to develop dementia compared to their more sedentary counterparts.

The following are activities that promote cognitive stimulation of the brain. "For longterm benefits, cognitve training needs to be an ongoing lifestyle behavior, like physical exercise or eating right." -- Rob Winningham

* Read a book

* Take a class at a community college or senior center

* Begin using email and social media

* Go on learning "field trips" with educational travel companies

* Start writing a journal

* Play Sudoku, number and word search puzzles

* Do computer-based brain training at home

* Volunteer

* Develop a hobby

A 3« year study by the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago of seniors -- average age was 82 -- showed that people who moved the least were 280 percent more

likely to develop dementia during the course of the study than those participants who moved the most (the top 10 percent).

Ways to increase your overall physical activity level:

* Take the stairs instead of the elevator

* Go for a 30-minute walk in the evening

* Walk or ride a bike to run errands, if possible

* Join a gym

* Swim

* Plant and tend a garden

When Should I Be Concerned About Memory Loss?

Misplacing your wallet or leaving your credit card at a store counter is considered forgetfulness, but it's not uncommon to experience such moments as we age. But when forgetfulness becomes frequent and consistent, affecting many areas of your life, it's cause for concern. Here are some examples:

* Repeating the same phrases, questions or stories in the same conversation.

* Not being able to keep track of what happens each day -- e.g., failing to recall which of the morning medicines were taken.

* Forgetting how to do routine tasks -- like brushing your teeth, bathing or combing your hair.

* Getting lost in familiar places.

* Misplacing items in unusual places (putting your hairbrush in the freezer).

Source: University Hospitals of Columbia and Cornell


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