Science, wisdom

Keeping Your Wits About You

I have a fear of losing my mind. Not in the crazy sort of way. It’s the fear of not being able to learn. Not being able to retain the information I feed it. The fear of dementia.  LearningMy father suffered from what seemed to be early-onset Alzheimer’s. There was discussion of his condition being precipitated by some heart medication — but nothing was for certain. It started very subtly. I noticed one winter when he picked me up for my holiday break in college.

On the way home, we almost got into a car accident. I couldn’t tell if his eyesight was going or his hearing. Knowing something was wrong, he pulled over and let me drive the rest of the way. A few years later during Christmas, I remember watching him struggle to put on his shoes and socks. He couldn’t remember which to put on first. The sock wasn’t fitting over the shoe. Again, he seemed to know it wasn’t right but just couldn’t figure it out on his own.

So now, every time I forget something I’m afraid it’s a symptom. No one else in the family has had dementia, and early-onset Alzheimer’s has pretty strong genetic factors, so logically I do not think I need to worry. Unfortunately, I’m also prone to anxiety, so the fear lingers.

On top of this, I’m a scientist. Thinking and learning are what I do and the brain is just one of the most valuable tools of the trade. Even without the dementia issue, I still worry about keeping up with my colleagues. I like to think of myself as a female Sheldon Cooper (no one sits in my spot at lab meeting), but in a room full of Ph.D.s I feel more like a Wolowitz… only I’ve never been to space.

All of this has me trying to be proactive. I’ve tried Lumosity, the website that touts “sophisticated, scientifically designed brain training for anyone.” You basically play video games for 15 minutes each day. The site keeps track of how well you are doing and compares when you first started to how you’re doing presently. It seemed to be OK enough, even sort of fun. I did the free trial but then just couldn’t commit to $14.95/month. Especially, when I felt as though I was sitting on my butt in front of the computer when exercise is a known preventative.  It turns out Lumosity had to pay $2 Million dollars to the FTC since they had no science to back up their claims of cognitive improvement.   I guess that’s good for me??

Just one hour of exercise a week can cut your risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia in half! It gets the blood flowing and increases circulation to the brain. With that knowledge, it was with glee and excitement that I joined a ballet class. Much to my dismay I was so out of shape I couldn’t keep up and decided to quit after the third class. (I really have to get back to Pilates to build my strength.)

That’s when I heard about a UCLA, study that was working wonders with people who have Alzheimer’s. There are no medications involved. It’s all through diet and exercise. Surely, the regimen could work to up my smarts, right? Granted, it’s rather an extensive course of treatment that, if most people could follow it, would probably also tackle this country’s obesity problem. It requires eliminating sugar, gluten, and processed foods, increasing vegetable intake, doing yoga or meditation each day, taking melatonin, vitamin B12, vitamin D3, fish oil, and coenzyme Q10 each day, as well as getting enough sleep, and exercising for 30 minutes a day.

I should confess, I am a total sugar addict. I did give it up for 30 days once — I lost 12 pounds! I fell off the wagon with Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter cups. Did you know sugar addiction triggers the same part of the brain as heroin? Your brain reward center releases dopamine each time you use it. But I digress…Other than the sugar I do eat pretty healthy. I’m mostly vegetarian and try to avoid processed food (my workplace cafeteria being the main exception). I get enough sleep and already take vitamin D, flax oil, and coenzyme Q10. I try to drink green smoothies at least 3-4 times a week. I even enlisted professional help in getting off the sugar, so fingers crossed.

Alzheimer’s and dementia are unpleasant realities that so many of us deal with every day, either suffering from it directly, or through the loved ones we’ve lost because of it. Fortunately, we’ve gotten to where we can beat it back, so until the day that a cure is found — and the treatment regimen isn’t too far from what we should be doing in our day-to-day lives anyway — we should continue exercising and finding new ways to stimulate our brains.

My current plan of attack is to add some melatonin and B12 to my supplements as I try to find the same motivation I had in my twenties to exercise. I’ll also check out a different brain-games program. I recently heard about High IQ Pro, which is apparently used by some people trying to practice for the Mensa IQ admissions test. While I’m not trying to get into Mensa, I figured practicing could be fun.  And, of course there is my blogging.  It’s does keep me learning new things: SEO, WordPress, Analytics, etc.

I know I’m no Ms. Sheldon Cooper.  I’m a Microbiologist, sort of cute,  I’m totally a Bernadette.