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A Different Kind Of Volunteering For Alzheimer’s Disease

It would be difficult to miss the headlines, commentary and information in print, on television and the Internet describing the ravages caused by Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Scientists are gaining insight into the mechanics of what might cause the debilitating disease that affects more than 5.3 million people in the United States. Along with the research data, comes a fair amount of theory on things people can do to possibly avoid, if not delay the onset. Baby boomers and beyond are making well-informed, conscious efforts to protect themselves. Through scientific investigation, the evidence demonstrates some efficacy of memory enhancing herbs such as ginko biloba, certain vitamins, Omega 3 fatty acids and other mineral supplements. Although no one source can claim to be the “best” for memory function and cognitive performance, using supplements along with a nutritious, well balanced diet may assist in treating and or delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Cerebral insufficiency is a syndrome thought to be secondary to atherosclerotic disease, characterized by impaired concentration, confusion, decreased physical performance, fatigue, headache, dizziness, depression, and anxiety.

In a small yet intriguing study recently published in The Journal of Gerontology, a team led by the Johns Hopkins neuropsychologist, Dr. Michelle Carlson, used cognitive tests and brain imaging scans to measure the effects that working in Baltimore, Maryland public schools had on eight female volunteers. The study was based on the preponderance that if older people who volunteered in elementary schools in a program that bolstered educational progress for children, could at the same time reduce their own risk of cognitive decline. Could the combination of varied and demanding tasks and social engagement benefit the volunteers, compared with a control group of similar women who did not volunteer? With an average age of 67, the women in the study were at risk for cognitive impairment. All of the women had low income and education levels, and scored poorly on the much used, Mini Mental State Examination. The volunteers completed 32 hours of training in the Experience Corps program, then worked 15 hours a week assisting classroom teachers and librarians, reading to students, shelving and recommending books and leading conflict resolution lessons.

After six months in the schools, the women underwent another round of cognitive testing. “Their performance improved by over 40 percent,” Dr. Carlson said in an interview. The gains were also seen in M.R.I. scans showing the women’s brain activity. “They showed immediate and measurable positive changes,” she said. Dr. Carlson believes that retaining executive function, that is the ability to focus on tasks and make sound judgments, is so significant, that when absent, it is one of the major reasons older people lose their ability to live independently. The complex tasks used in working with other team members in classrooms and libraries are stimulating, engaging tasks that might produce similar payoffs in comparable situations, even if they don’t improve urban schoolchildren’s reading. “It’s so important in day-to-day life,” Dr. Carlson said of these cognitive skills. The experiment proved to be a win-win situation with improved physical, mental and social well- being for seniors and higher test scores and gains in reading achievement for the students.

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About The Author: Gloria Ha’o Schneider is an expert in senior citizen and baby boomer issues. Her topics revolve around Senior Living and Healthcare to provide the latest information to this demographic as well as their families and loved ones.

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