MINDSHARE LECTURE SERIES: DR. JOHN HART, JR.
Each year, the Greater Dallas Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association presents its MindShare lecture series featuring notable speakers from various backgrounds. The topics they cover are all of interest and concern to those dealing with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Opening the season this year was Dr. John Hart, Jr., a noted neurologist and practitioner of the science of neurotherapeutics.
Dr. Hart is also one of the world’s leading researchers of the mechanics of memory. He spoke about the neurological process of recalling memories and how various dementias interrupt or prohibit recollections. Like many in his audience, Dr. Hart had also been a caregiver for an Alzheimer’s parent. In his case, it was while he was conducting his medical residency at John Hopkins Medical Center. He had an obvious shared connection with in his audience that was easy for his listeners to sense.
MEMORY COMPONENTS STORED IN DIFFERENT PARTS OF BRAIN
Memories, Dr. Hart explained, actually consist of many aspects. For instance, if we think about bagels, all of our senses are involved. We might remember the taste of a fresh, hot bagel, its smell, texture, places where we bought or enjoyed bagels, those we were with when we enjoyed a bagel along with countless other details of our bagel-related experiences. These separate memories are stored in different sections of our brain. They are categorized by color, shape, size, taste, smell and dozens of other markers tied to specific memories, and then cross filed within our brain along with similar experiences.
When we try to recall something, it is common to remember portions of those memories as “the dots begin to connect” in our minds, but sometimes we struggle to tie all the pieces of a memory together at the same time. That’s how the word “Whatchamacallit” was invented. We can visualize an object, we can remember where we bought it, how we used it, where we used it, how it felt in our hand…we just can’t connect a name to it.
CONNECTIONS CAUSE MEMORY TO “POP INTO HEAD”
But commonly, sometime after we were unsuccessfully trying to think of that object’s name, it will suddenly “pop into our head”. Dr. Hart said that “pop” is actually a fairly accurate description of what occurs.
He explained that when data stored in different portions of our brain connects with other data during the process of reasoning or memory recollection, there is actually a 25 Hz power surge between the brain neurons –a “pop”, if you will, that allows the idea or thought to complete itself. When those electrical connections do not occur, memory and reasoning diminish and eventually fail.
With dementias such as Alzheimer’s, chemical neurological changes occur in our brain that gradually prevents these electrical connections from happening. That’s memory loss. It usually happens gradually over time, but we those with dementias literally lose the ability to completely “connect the dots”, (brain cells).
“HOW CAN I PREVENT ALZHEIMER’S”
As is typical, the first questions asked to Dr. Hart were, “What can be done to prevent or slow the onset of Alzheimer’s?”
As a prevention, Dr. Hart said that while there is no proven science that indicates that learning a new language as an adult will help prevent Alzheimer’s, it is well recognized that that taking on “novel and complex” new experiences and learned tasks or skills do help, and he would include language lessons in that broad category. Brain exercises, such as working puzzles will not provide the “magic pill”, unless they take us far outside our traditional comfort zone. Learning new and unique (novel) skills that are mentally challenging (complex) are of help
But the best thing individuals can do to maintain good mental health as they age is exercise, and it does not have to be an elaborate gym workout regime. Dr. Hart said that studies are showing that if we will simply get our heart rate up by only 20 beats per minute over our normal resting pulse for 20 minutes at least three times a week, that will help tremendously. Increasing blood flow to our brains will make them healthier and aids the process of “connecting the dots” between brain neurons.
PREVENT VASCULAR DISEASE
Besides that, Dr. Hart advised that controlling high blood pressure, diabetes and elevated cholesterol will all help you ward off dementias. He also recommends fish oil supplements and coated aspirin to lower cholesterol and improve blood flow. Vascular disease is the onset trigger of many dementias, particularly Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s disease is the 6th leading cause of death in America and the only one in the top 10 causes of death that does not currently have an absolute prevention, treatment to slow its progression or a cure.
For information about the MindShare lecture series, see: www.alz.org/greaterdallas.