Dealing with cognitive decline

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A friend of mine recently announced that he had figured out what the problem was with our aging memories. "Our minds are like a hard drive with only so much space. My trouble is that my hard drive is filled up with the lyrics of every song from the '60s."

I totally get it. I can remember every Beatles lyric, even the entire songbook of the Monkees. But I can't remember my driver's license number. Now I know why. I am on overload from the '60s!

Cognitive decline. Everyone is talking about it. It is as fascinating to us as it is appalling.

A study reported in the November 2005 edition of American Family Physician concluded that 733 subjects, age 59 to 71, weren't just bellyaching when it came to complaints about cognitive decline. Based on a four-year questionnaire and MRIs, the authors concluded: "Cognitive complaints predict cognitive decline. . . . Cognitive complaints may be more sensitive than findings on objective measures, and such complaints should be taken seriously."

We aging warriors are not the only ones taking cognitive decline seriously. The National Institute of Health is embarking on a large-scale investigation of what it takes to keep the brain healthy and cognitive skills in shape as we age.

This research is called the Cognitive and Emotional Health Project, which emphasizes how a healthy emotional life positively affects such abilities as memory, focus, learning and vice versa. The emotional skills considered as important by this study are our sense of competency and our ability to constructively use our emotions.

While we are awaiting the results of this important investigation, we can still take the hint. Learning to manage our difficult emotions is worthwhile if we want to remember our dog's name next Christmas. Maintaining established skills and developing new competencies are labors well expended.

Staying emotionally healthy isn't the only strategy for insuring against the dreaded cognitive decline. There are three other areas we should all be focusing on:

* Destressing. If you are encountering stressful situations that you feel you have no control over, this can antagonize a perky mind. Researchers, reporting in the journal Science, attempted to prove what most of us already know from experience. They found that a brain enzyme, known as protein kinase C (PKC), affects our "working memory." When we sense that when we aren't in control of what happens to us, this can activate PKC, leaving us vulnerable to declines in our concentration and judgment, as well as greater impulsivity and distractibility.

Time to stop playing the victim and take up yoga or meditation or contemplative prayer or peaceful walks with your best friend.

* Heart health. When the CEHP reviewed 96 studies on what affects brain health in subjects 65 and older, they consistently came up with the same risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease. In other words, doing what we should to maintain good heart health will also benefit our minds: maintaining healthy cholesterol and hypertension levels, quitting smoking, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight, preventing or controlling diabetes.

* Social health. It is only common sense that people who socially isolate will suffer poorer cognitive and emotional health as they age. Some recent research out of Princeton indicates that we could be doing all the right things and still not be getting the bennies for our brains. Exercise, for example, which has been shown to grow new brain cells, is delayed in socially isolated individuals. Simply put, walking or jogging with a friend will give your brain more of a boost than that solitary jaunt.

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at For more on the topics covered in Healthspan, visit his Web site:

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