Friday, June 26, 2009

Can Memory Loss Be Prevented?

New York Times

By Anne Underwood

At the age of 78, Bob Branham, a retired computer software developer in Dallas, Tex., took up quilting. It wasn’t his idea, actually. He’d never dreamed of piecing together his own Amish diamond coverlet or rummaging around Jo-Ann Fabrics in search of calico prints. But then he enrolled in a trial sponsored by the National Institute on Aging to assess whether learning a new skill can help preserve cognitive function in old age. By random assignment, he landed in the quilting group.

When it comes to mental agility, we’re more likely to think of crosswords than cross-stitch. But neuroscientists suspect that learning a challenging new skill — a new language, a new musical instrument — may be even more effective than mental games at keeping the brain sharp. And quilting is more complicated than it may seem.

“It’s a very abstract task,” said Dr. Denise Park, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, who is leading the trial. “You have to picture what the pattern will look like, match fabrics, manipulate geometric forms, mentally rotate objects.”

In Mr. Branham’s case, he also had to learn to use a sewing machine. And while it’s too early to tell if quilting is sharpening his mind, he quickly found that he loved his new pastime. He spends as much as 40 hours a week piecing and stitching, both at home and at the social center that Dr. Park set up for the trial.

“I get ideas and pointers from the instructor and the other participants,” he said. “We have a real good time.”

Memory is among the least understood areas of neuroscience, and the sad truth is that there is no magic pill or potion at present that will prevent our parents’ minds from failing. But a panel of 30 experts from the United States and Europe recently issued a consensus statement on what we do know about maintaining brain fitness (which includes not only memory, but also reasoning, attention and speed of processing). The verdict was that three things are crucial: physical exercise, mental challenges and good health habits in general.

But wait! What about the supplements and software programs we’ve been stocking up on? “There’s a lot of snake oil out there,” warned Dr. Laura Carstensen, director of the Center on Longevity at Stanford University, who co-chaired the panel. In short, don’t count on supplements. (The rationale behind ginkgo biloba is plausible, but there is no scientific evidence it works.) Steer clear of anything that promises to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. (Such a claim would require approval from the Food and Drug Administration, and no product has it.) And look skeptically on software programs. (Most improve performance only on the games themselves, not mental function in general.)

Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York TimesInstead, Dr. Carstensen said,.......read more Can Memory Loss Be Prevented?

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