Over 35 million people worldwide will have dementia next year, according a report released late last month; and personnel at a Framingham senior living community have often seen residents and their younger family members express “that fear that someday I may be in that situation,” said the community’s executive director Brian Beausoleil.
But seniors and staff at Summerville at Farm Pond are optimistic about a recently launched brain health program, which they hope can not only slow the loss of brain cells due to old age, but also grow new cells, to delay or prevent dementia from occurring.
“We’ve all heard that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Well, it turns out you certainly can,” said Summerville’s memory care director Steve Williams.
In 2008, through a partnership with clinical neuropsychologist and University of Pittsburgh adjunct professor Dr. Paul Nussbaum, 12 Summerville residents between age 80 and 95 participated in a six-week pilot study, which is now being implemented community-wide.
The seniors in the pilot study changed their daily activities and diets. They meditated and took Portuguese, sign language, tai chi, yoga, music, creative writing and art classes. They added more fish and vegetables to their diets and learned to use computers, the Internet and joined the social networking site, MyWayVillage, or a “Facebook for seniors.”
Summerville residents Judy Markovsky, 85, and K. Fleming, 84, had both recently lost their husbands prior to the pilot study’s start, and joining the program designed to keep the mind busy could not have come at a better time.
“I felt really good about myself,” Fleming said. “All I was doing [before joining the program] was sitting in the house crying, which doesn’t do you much good.”
“It was wonderful. I was lucky to be asked to be in the study,” added Markovsky. “We did so many things in the six-week period. It was quite a hectic time.”
And in the midst of their busy schedules, along with increasing their knowledge of the brain and improving their quality of life, study results said their memories were improving in the process.
The 12 pilot study members were tested before the six-week program began on how well they could remember new information that had been presented to them 20 minutes ago. When the 12 were re-tested after the six weeks, their ability to remember new information presented 20 minutes earlier had improved significantly.
Nussbaum said that by keeping their brains stimulated with “novel and complex tasks,” their brains grew new cells and strengthened each person’s ability to remember.
The program focuses on increasing brain health through five key areas – nutrition, socialization, mental stimulation, spirituality and physical activity – none of which are more important than the other in preserving a person’s memory.
“We all want to have access to our life story, and it’s stored in our brain,” said Nussbaum.
From former university professors to concentration camp survivors to the inventor of the lithium ion battery, “everybody here has a story to tell, and some of them are just incredible,” said wellness coordinator for independent living residents Bryna Curley.
Although the program is focused on those entering their later years when memory loss is most likely to occur, following its recommended dietary and daily activity changes – including something as simple as writing with your opposite hand for a little while each day – is believed to be beneficial at any age.
“This is a lifespan issue. The brain doesn’t care how old it is. It really is for all of us,” said Nussbaum.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re 35 or 85,” added Beausoleil.
Convincing residents at Summerville, an Emeritus community where the average age is 86, to change daily their routines and try new things can have its challenges.
“In the beginning, and even now, we still have some that aren’t that interested,” said Curley; but those who are participating, “are thriving and they just want more of it.”
Fleming, Markovsky and the other 10 pilot-study participants are forming an advisory board to work with Summerville staff to provide feedback on what worked or what didn’t work during the program’s trial run.
They are also recruiting more Summerville residents to participate, including 93-year-old Archie Gath, who said, “I’m new at it, but I’m enjoying it.”
“We’re not going to get 100 percent, but I think we can get change in behavior to 40 percent,” said Nussbaum. “Nobody has to give up anything. We just strive to get people to try things they aren’t all that good at.”
“We don’t want to overplay this. It’s a first step,” he said. “But it’s an enormous first step.”
For more on Nussbaum's work on brain health visit, www.paulnussbaum.com.