I Knew You Looked Familiar

Brightening, Boosting, Reimplanting Our Brains

Alzheimer’s disease is costly, both in terms of what we lose to the illness, and in terms of treatment. The sixth leading cause of death, by 2050 the number of people affected by Alzheimer’s is projected to reach 16 million. It’s currently the most expensive health condition in the U.S., and the only one in the top ten without cure or prevention. But there may be some ways to slow its progress.

Blog-Inset-July-28We’ve explored aging and memory from a number of perspectives, from the cutting edge health and creativity steps reverse mortgage professionals can share with clients and prospects to help keep malleable minds in tip-top shape, to viewing dementia from an expanded dimension. Now we’re poised to be able to back up our grey matter the same way we do our devices — or even implant a new “hard drive” when the existing one falters.

In Still Alice, a Harvard linguistics professor relies on her Blackberry to remember appointments — a prompt many of us need in these information-laden times, regardless of the condition of our personal RAM (random access memory). In the novel, Alice writes herself a letter on her computer that contains key brain health information, such as the number of children she has and her eldest daughter’s birthday, with instructions to her future self: when she is unable to answer all the questions correctly, she will no longer be of sound mind. The question is, would she know when her answers weren’t accurate?

Backup Your Memories

A new app helps Alzheimer’s patients stave off this unsettling shift. Backup Memory acts as a memory stimulator for people who are exhibiting early signs of Alzheimer’s. “Recent studies have shown that mental stimulation in the form of regular reminders of past events could potentially slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. This is where we saw an opportunity,” says Azer Jaafoura, one of the product’s developers. The app “helps patients become aware of their immediate surroundings by identifying nearby family members and friends, and also reminds patients about their relationship with each person and memories they’ve shared in the past through photographs and videos.”

While memory loss is the acknowledged hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease, it’s by no means the only symptom. Scientists from University College London analyzed data on nearly 8,000 members of the US National Alzheimer Coordinating Center (NACC) database, an ongoing registry of people who receive care at an Alzheimer’s treatment center in the United States. Each participant had been formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and recorded the first signs that something was wrong in their brain.

Yet a fourth of those who developed Alzheimer’s before age 60 reported initial symptoms that had more to do with spatial awareness, problem solving and judgment — early warning signs that drop off significantly as the age of diagnosis rises.

What if memory itself could be implanted? Scientists are researching how brain plasticity might one day lead to the ability to change the way we remember events. While the research is initially focusing on helping to erase or replace traumatic memories, the work carries implicit possibility for those whose memories are fading with time. And neuro-optometric rehabilitation (redirecting cognitive pathways through visual adaptation), which has proven successful with traumatic brain injuries such as concussions — where other treatments did little more than provide temporary symptom relief — may hold out promise for Alzheimer’s patients as well.

Brain Trauma Can Mimic Alzheimer’s

It’s also valuable to know that what looks like Alzheimer’s disease may not be dementia at all, but a TBI (traumatic brain injury). As DePaul University professor Clark Elliott explores in his eight-year odyssey with TBI, The Ghost in My Brain, a concussion can cause symptoms that masquerade as Alzheimer’s due to cognitive processing problems. He describes how a football player with TBI became progressively less able to schedule appointments, until “it got to the point where you couldn’t tell him the day before an event and expect him to remember.”

Elliott devised a brain assessment self-test that mirrors that of the fictional Alice: he would ask himself, “What are the names of my children?” and gauge his brain’s functionality for the day based on how long it took him to answer: anywhere from six seconds on good days to more than three minutes on “bad brain days.” So if any of your reverse mortgage clients or prospects have fallen and hit their head, they need to make sure they aren’t suffering from a TBI, especially if they fear they may be developing dementia.

Those who do have Alzheimer’s recognize what is happening to them. This poignant series of self-portraits provides a visual record of a man with Alzheimer’s disease over an eight-year period, until the year he forgot to send an image to care facility management. Like the blog Watching the Lights Go Out, the memory-impaired person gives us a rare glimpse into what losing one’s mental acuity is like from the inside.


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