By Henrylito D. Tacio
“The human brain is a most unusual instrument of elegant and as yet unknown capacity.” — Stuart Seaton
Last year, James went to the hospital when his headache did not go away after taking pain reliever. After some questions and check-up, the doctor advised him to be admitted. The nurse asked him if I had been admitted there before and he answered affirmatively but added that it was a long, long time ago. Since she could not find my record, she asked the patient some questions.
“What’s your middle name D stands for, sir?” she inquired. Dangalio, he said, but his sister, who accompanied him corrected, “No, it’s Dela Rita.” Well, Dangalio was actually his father’s middle name. “How old are you, sir?” Could not remember exactly how old he was, he asked his sister.
James is just one of those forty something who are encountering the signs, by turns amusing and disconcerting, that accompany the decline of the brain’s acuity: a good friend’s name suddenly vanishing from memory; a search for pen only to find it atop the ear; not remembering where common objects like keys, wallets, documents are placed.
“It’s probably one of the most frightening aspects of the changes we undergo as we age,” Nancy Ceridwyn, director of educational initiatives at the American Society on Aging, told The New York Times. “Our memories are who we are. And if we lose our memories we lose that groundedness of who we are.”
“Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us,” wrote British author Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest. But what happens if your memories are deleted from your brain? That’s where Alzheimer’s disease, which has a gradual onset, comes into mind.
Usually, Alzheimer’s disease starts with subtle changes in memory function. “What comes first gets out last with the most recent memory getting lost first,” explains Dr Simeon Marasigan, associate professor at the department of neurology and psychiatry of the University of Santo Tomas in Manila.
Unfortunately, there is no definitive laboratory test to detect Alzheimer’s disease. Doctors rely on symptoms to make the diagnosis, and most think that by the time symptoms show up the brain damage is already extensive.
“About 5 percent of men and 6 percent of women over 60 years of age are affected with Alzheimer’s,” says Dr Wang Xiangdong, adviser of the mental health and control substance abuse program of the regional office of World Health Organization (WHO) in Manila. “With the ageing of populations, this figure is projected to increase rapidly over the next 20 years.”
In the United States, where 11–16 million people will have the disease by 2050, people who turn 50 begin to look at forgetfulness with more seriousness. “When you misplace your keys when you’re 25, you don’t pay any attention to it,” said Dr. Gene Cohen, the director of the Center for Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University. “But when you do the identical thing at 50 or older, you raise an eyebrow.”
Recently, however, scientists have started to overcome one of the biggest obstacles to treating brain disease: getting drugs into the brain. Memory Pharmaceuticals is at the forefront of an intense scientific race to devise truly effective memory-enhancing drugs, an idea that has long been the stuff of science fiction. This new generation of drugs could mend memory loss n the seriously ill or the merely absent-minded.
“My friends keep asking when the little red pill is coming,” says Dr. Eric Kandel, a Columbia University researcher. He co-founded Memory Pharmaceuticals in 1998 and shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2000. “If we continue making the kind of progress we are now, we will have drugs for age-related memory loss in five or ten years,” he said.
But in the absence of such pill yet, people are advised to sharpen their wit and boost their brain power simply and naturally. And the best way to keep your brain sharp is to exercise it. A dwindling memory and decreased concentration are generally caused by decreased blood flow to the brain and loss of brain cells.
Research shows that physical exercise may encourage the brain to work at optimum capacity by causing nerve cells to multiply, strengthening their interconnections and protecting them from damage.
To sharpen your thinking cap, incorporate mind-stimulating games into your daily life that keep your mind working and stimulated. Listen intently and memorize names, shopping lists, and daily activities. Puzzles and memory games are also helpful.
In the United States, decaying brains, or the fear thereof, have inspired a mini-industry of computer-based fitter-brain products, according to The New York Times. Nintendo’s Brain Age 2, a popular video game of simple math and memory exercises, is one. Posit Science’s computer-based “cognitive behavioral training” exercises are another. MindFit, a software-based program, combines cognitive assessment of more than a dozen different skills with a personalized training regimen based on that assessment.
“There is a gradual growing awareness that challenging your brain can have positive effects,” Dr. Cohen said. He said the plasticity of the brain is directly related to the production of new dendrites, the branched, tree-like neural projections that carry electrical signals through the brain. “Every time you challenge your brain it will actually modify the brain,” he said. “We can indeed form new brain cells, despite a century of being told it’s impossible.”
Don’t ever discount the power of sleep. A good night’s sleep is crucial for mental energy because our body regenerates during sleep. “It’s a common fact that lack of sleep inhibits concentration,” says Dr. Patrick Gerard Moral, head of the sleep and snore diagnostic and treatment unit of the University of Santo Tomas and president of the Philippine Society of Sleep Medicine.
A good night’s sleep means waking up rested and energized. On average, a healthy adult needs about eight hours of sleep a night, according to Dr. Ravi Seshadri, a sleep expert and clinical director of MD Specialist HealthCare at the Paragon Medical Centre in Singapore.
Still another: Feed your brain with good food. Health experts said that a balanced diet rich in essential amino acids, omega oils, minerals and vitamins will ensure a vibrant and sharp memory. Make sure to eat some form of protein with every meal such as nuts, seeds, beans, legumes or animal products.
Fish, especially deep ocean fish, provide a good source for the essential oils that our cells need to function optimally. Other brain foods include: apples, bamboo shoots, bell peppers, yams, squash, potatoes, mushrooms, papaya, pineapples, and sesame seeds.
“The brain is a wonderful organ,” hailed American poet Robert Frost. “It starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.” — ###