Brain Maintenance Pays off for Greensburg Seniors

By Urbani, Laura | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 19, 2007 | Go to article overview

Brain Maintenance Pays off for Greensburg Seniors


Urbani, Laura, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


In even the coldest weather, the McKenna Senior Center in Greensburg has a full house. Older adults arrive to play games and socialize. They may not realize it, but they are taking the first steps toward preventing Alzheimer's disease.

Dick Haskell, of Greensburg, meets several others Monday and Thursday mornings to play bridge.

"I like to play games, period," said Haskell, who began playing bridge at the senior center three years ago. "I've played bridge since I was in college. It's been a few years."

The senior center isn't the only place Haskell can find a card game. At Redmont Place, a community for people older than 55, he joins the men for a poker game every Tuesday. Women in the community play poker once a month -- and Haskell has been known to sit in if they need an extra player.

"We play a lot of poker," said Haskell, adding that his wife is just as fond of card games as he is. "We have friends come in to our home to play, as well."

At age 84, Haskell's mind is still sharp. One reason may be the mental exercise he gets.

Scientific studies indicate that keeping the brain active may prevent, or at least delay, the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

It's the most common type of dementia, which occurs when brain cells and the connections among them die. Keeping the brain active may build its reserves of brain cells.

"Just to stay in shape, you exercise your muscles," said Lois Lutz, education and outreach coordinator for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. "If you continue to lift weights, you can keep your physical muscles longer. The same can be said of your brain."

The Alzheimer's Association has created a program called "Maintain Your Brain," which is offered in conjunction with Excela Health hospitals. The one-hour program teaches participants how to keep both their mind and body healthy.

"It was designed for baby boomers, to see if we can ward off Alzheimer's," Lutz explained.

As the baby boom generation ages, Alzheimer's disease will become a bigger worry for health professionals. More than 4.5 million Americans have Alzheimer's, a number that has doubled since 1980. That number is expected to increase as people live longer.

"This problem will have immense public health implications," said Dr. Daniel DiCola, who co-founder of the Geriatric Assessment Center at Latrobe Hospital. "This is an expensive disease. People need a lot of care, and care for a long time."

The disease advances at a different rate for each person and can last anywhere from three to 20 years. It first affects areas of the brain that control memory and thinking skills. As the disease spreads, it causes a loss of brain function that can result in death.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, reasons for the disease are not fully understood. Age is the most significant risk factor: Most people with Alzheimer's are older than 65. The risk doubles every five years beyond 65, and 50 percent of 85-year-olds are likely to have Alzheimer's.

Other risk factors include family history, heredity, head injury and heart problems.

Some studies also have found a connection between low levels of education and a higher risk of Alzheimer's.

"People who read a lot have a proven higher mental capacity," said Leslie Ruffner, executive director at Wellspring at Huntingdon Ridge in North Huntingdon, a care facility that specializes in treating Alzheimer's patients. …

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