Can We Overcome Alzheimer’s?

A few days ago we took the grandchildren ice skating. It was wonderful seeing them have a go – the first time with skates on. The experience made me realize something quite important.

I have skated since I was 8 years of age, having grown up in Canada. The last time I skated was 10 years ago, but even so, I was able to get on the ice and whiz around without any mishap. You see, for me skating is as natural as walking. For the grandkids it was totally unnatural as they had to learn how to balance on slippery ice with thin blades.

Whenever we need to learn something new, we do it through our conscious mind. Once something has been learned, it filters through to the subconscious. Our brain is 95% subconscious; 5% conscious. For me when it comes to skating, my subconscious (the programmed part) takes over, while for the grandkids, they have to make a conscious effort to learn, until enough nerve connections are made in the brain and it becomes embedded in their subconscious.

You may wonder, what specifically has this got to do with seniors? It is very relevant! We have a major health and cost problem looming not only in Australia, but in many countries as the population ages. Alzheimer’s Disease is occurring in record numbers and will continue to escalate unless we find a “cure” or we put into place strategies to prevent or limit its reach. For me, it’s particularly personal as my mother suffered with Alzheimer’s and I know the impact of this illness.

Today Alzheimer’s ranks 5th as the cause of death in Australia and it is estimated that by 2050 – just 36 years away – Alzheimer’s will strike 1 in 85 people. Forty-three percent of those afflicted will need nursing home type care. The costs to society will be staggering if the trend continues.

This leads me back to the difference between conscious and subconscious. In order to stimulate new neural connections, as seniors, we need to be consciously learning. Doing the same tasks we have always done, doesn’t stimulate the brain. Unconscious learned activities or tasks are easy; conscious learning takes effort. The good news is that contrary to what was believed when I graduated from college, the brain can change and learn at any age. This is the science of Neuroplasticity which has exploded on the scene in the past couple of decades.

Another way of looking at Neuroplasticity is brain restructuring or remoulding which alters its function. There are several ways that we can enhance brain health in this way.

1. Mindfulness

This is the state of being in the “now” or “present”, so that you consciously focus your attention and awareness which is eliminating a lot of the brain “noise” that you experience. An excellent technique to achieve mindfulness is meditation.

2. Non-Physical Exercise

There are many new things we can do with conscious intention such as writing, learning computer programs, learning a new language, taking a college course or even playing games. An app which I use on my ipad is Lumosity which really challenges the brain on dexterity, memory and other cognitive skills

3. Physical Exercise

Besides the obvious physical benefits of exercise, there is a real feedback mechanism to the brain when we exercise. Here again, the greatest benefit comes from doing something new which creates new connections and new learning experiences. Just a few examples of the things you can do are learning to dance, taking up tennis, Tai Chi or taking up swimming.

Remember if you do what you have always done, nothing changes and your brain stagnates. It was Albert Einstein who said, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”. As we age, we owe it to ourselves to look after our brains because Alzheimer’s is not a pretty alternative.