Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Sensible Discussions of Aging and Alzheimer's Disease

Raspberry souffle 2007 at La Pichoun in France

We want to call your attention to three recent articles, all in The New York Times, which do a much better job than usual in getting things right about Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease.  Each article has information that we found useful.  We provide links to the article at the end of the blog.

The first article, A Life-Changing Diagnosis, follows one woman, Geri Taylor, from the moments in 2012 when she first noticed changes that could no longer be explained as normal memory problems through the journey she and her husband have made to understand and manage the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease.  What stands out about the article is that we hear Geri’s voice, what she sees and thinks. We see her struggles to still lead a meaningful life and her husband’s difficulties in accepting her illness. Like Geri, many people with Alzheimer’s Disease retain awareness of their cognitive problems and can tell us how they want to lead their lives.  As with other non-fiction accounts, this article has honesty and depth.  We see through Geri’s eyes and understand her struggles.

Along with the original publication of that article, the Times included a piece by Pam Belluck inauspiciously titled “What Is Alzheimer’s Disease.”  Most articles that we’ve read simply rehash the usual bland information and misinformation that abounds in the media.  But using clear, precise information, this article gets it right.  Among the topics covered are the difference between normal aging and Alzheimer’s, how Alzheimer’s is diagnosed, what causes Alzheimer’s and whether there are any medications for Alzheimer’s.    We were particularly struck with the succinct and accurate way Ms. Belluck addressed the question of whether Alzheimer’s is preventable.  In contrast to the usual exaggeration that envelopes this question in the media and the scientific literature, Ms. Belluck sticks with the facts.  She says that activities that “keep us healthy and engaged” have the possibility to delay the onset of dementia, at least for some time.  It’s a false hope and poor science to maintain that regimens of diet, physical exercise or cognitive exercise can actually prevent Alzheimer’s or the other forms of dementia, but by doing the things that promote brain health, we may be able, in Ms. Belluck’s words, to “keep dementia at bay.”

Ms. Belluck is a health and science writer at the Times, and shared a 2015 Pulitzer prize with colleagues for reporting on the Ebola epidemic.

The third piece, called “Better Aging Through Practice, Practice, Practice” picks up a similar theme.  The author, Gerald Marzorati, a former editor of the New York Times Magazine, gets past all the hype about staying forever young by staying active, and instead identifies an approach that makes a lot of sense and that reflects what the best research tells us.   Mr. Marzorati correctly identifies that it is not just staying active that is important but that how we stay active matters.  He proposes that we choose a demanding skill that we want to master and that takes considerable time and effort to get good at.  He took up playing tennis when he was in his mid-50s, learning the basic skills and working to improve through lessons and practice.  Unlike most of us who pick up a racket or golf club in a casual way, or start a hobby, Mr. Marzorati says we need to make “a disciplined effort at improvement.”  That means regularly working with coaches or experts in the skill we want to master and practicing that skill so that we work toward higher levels. This is what research tells us works best—expanding our physical and mental skills and staying engaged.  Earlier in life we might have hoped to rise to the pinnacle of our sport or avocation or to be able to compete at an elite level.  Now the focus is on the improvement itself rather than comparing oneself to others who excel at the activity we are working on.

We have been thinking in a similar way about the importance of building skills, but not with the crystal clear focus that Mr. Marzorati has.  The article has inspired us to examine our future choices more carefully and to think about our hobbies in a different way.   As some of you know, Judy is an excellent baker and cook, and she enjoys trying new and challenging recipes, and I am the resident grill-master.  We have taken some classes at Zingerman’s deli in Ann Arbor and in France, including one at Julia Child’s country home near Cannes.  We always enjoy learning new things, but the idea of challenging ourselves to improve was not the point.  Now we have a new perspective, so Judy found a class in knife skills at the CIA (Not that CIA, but the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park), and Steve is going to take a grilling class at the same time.  While taking cooking classes is not really new and different, our focus on gaining skills and practicing until perfect, is a departure.

You’ll all benefit from this, too, if you come over for a meal.  Just don’t startle Judy when she has a knife in her hand.

A Life-Changing Diagnosis

What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Better Aging Through Practice, Practice, Practice

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