Photo by Jenna Aguilera
If a student happens into Professor Jessica Cail’s psychology lecture class, the curriculum might prove to possess a very urgent suggestion for the fortification of the brain for our old age. For the purpose of highlighting both a societal need and a warning, she chooses to incorporate in-depth, breaking news and studies surrounding Alzheimer’s into her curriculum, for current patients and for us.
Alzheimer’s is caused by a degeneration of the brain’s connections. Neurons throughout the brain communicate to carry out the simplest of tasks, such as movement and speech. In the same way, these connections allow memory and communication of many kinds, such as writing. Alzheimer’s eats away at these connections, eventually rendering the afflicted person unable to do much at all besides exist.
In its early stages, shaky hands and flightiness might show, but this is a disease that eventually can go as far as making parents forget their children’s names or even their own names — but there may be a way that people as young as college students can begin to help reduce the severity of effects emerging later in life if we carry the disease. One good method to strengthen the brain early on is learning music, which stimulates multiple parts of the brain.
“While at this point we can’t say that music training prevents Alzheimer’s, research has shown a few effects that may relate to delayed onset or reduced severity of the disease … They noticed a while ago that people with advanced degrees or intellectually challenging careers had a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s,” Cail said.
Cail said a person who, throughout his or her life, continues to learn, make complex connections and do tasks requiring many parts of the brain may show far fewer symptoms of the disease later in life. She explained that a brain with a greater number of connecting neurons is more work for the disease to “dismantle,” thus slowing the loss of motor functions and memory.
Although there is not yet a cure to this disease, with greater and stronger connections of neurons in the brain even those afflicted with it in any phase of life might never feel serious effects — and it’s never too early or too late to start challenging and stimulating the brain to this end.
Referencing the documentary “Alive Inside,” shown earlier this year at the Reelstories Film Festival, Cail said, “One of the interesting developments recently has been the Music & Memory project, featured in the documentary. In it, they are using music to reconnect people who have Alzheimer’s with their memories and themselves. Even more impressive is that the effect doesn’t stop when they take the headphones off. There is a cognitive boost that lasts. Uncommunicative patients suddenly talk. Catatonic patients suddenly move. One husband used music to slow the progression of his wife’s Alzheimer’s by years.”
This asserts that even listening to music might be a great place to start in symptom reduction for the years to come and that it’s never too late to help a current patient. In considering these current patients, however, we must remember that their ailment could well be our own one day, and that they’re still people.
Genetic predisposition obviously has a huge part to play in our own susceptibility, but the lack of mental stimulation or variety could make it worse going forward. For this reason, scientists continue to advance easier and easier care for current patients, and even for the prevention of symptoms for the future. For example, with a smartphone in every hand these days, scientists are already studying their effects on brain health, while simultaneously manipulating their technology for a very clear benefit for patients and people wishing to reduce their risk of symptoms through apps that both cognitively stimulate the user as well as ones that track the afflicted elderly lost around town.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association Disease Facts and Figures, every 67 seconds, someone in this country develops the disease. It is the sixth most common cause of death in the country as well, but with greater research and education on the disease, all of us can take steps to symptom reduction, whether right now in ourselves at college age or in our family members who are already affected.
Follow Haley Laningham on Twitter: @haleylanz