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The Golden Years: Aging in Our Region (Part Four)

Karen Daniels and Jeff Toth both work for UNCW's psychology department, studying the effects of mental stimulation and aerobic exercise on cognitive function.
Karen Daniels and Jeff Toth both work for UNCW's psychology department, studying the effects of mental stimulation and aerobic exercise on cognitive function.

Right now, 1 in 8 Americans aged 65 and older has Alzheimer’s, and the disease affects nearly half of all people who are 85 and up.

With the baby boomers growing older and therefore more susceptible, experts project that the number of sufferers could nearly triple to 16 million by 2050.

For the final part of our series The Golden Years: Aging in Our Region, WHQR’s Michelle Bliss discovers a silver lining as new research develops in labs and offices across the country, including right here in southeastern North Carolina.

UNCW Psychology Assistant Professor Jeff Toth is clicking through a series of classic artworks on a computer in his lab. He’s created a game called Art Dealer in which players get to buy and sell those images.

“So each round of this game shows you paintings—these are the paintings you’re actually supposed to buy. These are the originals that you’re going to see in the sale you’re going to go to. So, you’re supposed to try and remember these.”

The game is based on research findings regarding what’s called “neural plasticity:”

Brain is malleable: “The brain is much more changeable, much more malleable than we think.”

With that idea in mind, researchers like Toth are testing whether someone can undergo mental training. They want to find out if cognitive exercises, like playing Art Dealer, can enhance someone’s abilities, especially later in life when they’re at risk of memory failure.

“And the trick to this whole game actually is that they’re actually all real paintings by Mary Cassatt, but the ones he didn’t show you are going to be repeated in the test. And so, by being repeated, they’re going to feel familiar to you. And this is the way this method tries to stop you from using a very automatic form of memory and instead rely on a much more cognitively-controlled, a much more recollective, form of memory, which is what older adults are losing.”

Toth says that a lot of older adults have latched onto this idea that activities like crossword puzzles can automatically preserve their cognitive function. But really, it’s about challenging yourself to try something new, like learning a language, musical instrument, or video game.

Toth: So you have to decide—Do you want to buy that painting? Was that one of the originals or not?

Bliss: Yes.

Toth: Excellent buy!

Building a routine of “no routine” is key and Toth says that the earlier you do it, the better.

“The best evidence shows that your cognitive abilities peak sometime in your thirties. And then it begins to decline. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that I wouldn’t say it’s too late when you’re in your sixties and seventies—it’s never too late. You should always be doing what you can to make your life as rich as possible. But I would suggest to get started early.”

Toth works side-by-side with his wife, Karen Daniels, who is also an assistant professor for UNCW’s psychology department. At the start of her career, she vividly remembers a mentor telling her that one day she would grow old and lose her memory—it would be inevitable.

“Certainly, there’s a belief now, more than ever, that you can do things to control the kind of trajectory of your cognitive health. Even in the face of Alzheimer’s disease, I think there’s this corresponding acknowledgement that there are things that we can do—that we’re not passive recipients, that we’re actually active participants.

In order to be an active participant, Daniels says we should adopt a “kitchen sink” approach by seeking out mental stimulation and aerobic exercise, along with a healthy diet, adequate sleep, and no smoking.

Another way to be proactive is to establish a memory baseline through a series of tests at the MARS Memory Health-Network in Wilmington.

“I would give you potentially some words to remember that we’ll come back to a little later. I might ask you to do some simple drawing tasks, replicating a few images—you can see here we have two intersecting images. I would ask you to try following some verbal instructions, so if I told you ‘close your eyes, raise your right hand.’”

That’s Len Lecci, director of clinical services at MARS. He says that having a patient’s cognitive baseline allows his team to detect declines in memory from the onset. There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but if memory loss is detected early, a patient’s remaining brain function can be maintained and more severe impairment can be delayed.

“Because we can really just preserve or slow the progression down, if someone is treated, for example, first diagnosed when they’re moderately to severely demented and then they start getting treatment, all you’ll be—at best case scenario—is preserving moderate to severe dementia.”

Lecci says that catching and treating memory decline early on could make a huge dent in the skyrocketing projections for Alzheimer’s. But it’ll require a systemic change.

“If you were a female you would have a mammogram at a particular age and your doctor would tell you to do that, or if you were male, a prostate exam. For memory disorders, this is something that has really kind of slid off the radar, and for most people, they deal with it when they think they have it. And this is such a sort of arcane way to deal with this.”

Such a large-scale change is still a far way off. In the meantime, North Carolina’s senior population is projected to grow by more than 800,000 people in the next twenty years, and right now, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, the sixth leading cause of death in America.

But Lecci says his hope for the situation lies in a series of smaller, grassroots changes from a proactive baby boomer generation ready to take the reins on their own health.

After growing up in Woodbridge, Virginia, Michelle attended Virginia Tech before moving to Wilmington to complete her Master in Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina in Wilmington. Her reporting and nonfiction writing have been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, within the pages of Wrightsville Beach Magazine, and in literary journals like River Teeth and Ninth Letter. Before moving to Wilmington, Michelle served as the general manager for WUVT, a community radio station in Blacksburg, Virginia. She lives with her husband Scott and their pups, Katie, Cooper, and Mosey.