Attendees at Saturday’s Staying Sharp program in Las Vegas weren’t just concerned with playing the slot machines and tanning by the pool. At the convention center at least, they soaked up reliable information about the brain.
While attending Staying Sharp Las Vegas this past Saturday, I kept a chronicle you can see via the social network service Storify. This Staying Sharp session was part of AARP’s “Life at 50” national event; the Storify has photos, tweets, and other text that gives you a feel for what happened as well as good takeaways from the panel of experts.
After the session was over, I spoke one-on-one with the two panelists, Charles Bernick, M.D., and Donna Munic-Miller, Ph.D., both of the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Vegas. The two experts said they enjoyed the Q&A at the end of the program because it gave them a better idea of the types of neurological issues that worry and interest people. One person asked about the link between medication and memory, one about “chemo brain,” and another about the hereditary elements of Alzheimer’s.
Both Bernick and Munic-Miller stressed the importance of general health, including maintaining a healthy diet and exercise. There are two things you can’t control—your age and your genetics—but there is so much else you can control that can have enormous positive effects. “If you can delay the onset of a disease for five years, that may make a huge difference in quality of life,” Bernick said.
During the session, Bernick said he doesn’t think genetic marker tests for diseases like Alzheimer’s are a good idea. Afterward, he told me that part of the reason is that researchers can’t yet determine with certainty whether someone who hasn’t yet shown symptoms will eventually get Alzheimer’s, whether they have the marker or not. In addition, he said, “Until we have a treatment that will delay the progression, [the genetic test] will only lead to worry.” So while he may change his stance in the future, right now he sees no health benefit to a genetic marker test.
Munic-Miller talked about the importance of caretakers taking care of themselves. She mentioned a report that stated the caretaker often dies before the person he or she is caring for does. She also recommends getting a baseline cognitive test if you have any worries about your memory. By getting a baseline test—which looks at learning, memory, spatial and language skills, etc.—an expert can compare you to people in your age range and, down the road, your younger self. Getting tested after you’ve shown symptoms for years might not be as beneficial. “I can re-test you six months after your initial test and tell if there’s a decline. If you go from an IQ of 140 to an IQ of 100, that’s a big decline, even if the 100 puts you in the ‘normal’ range.”
Both experts agreed that Staying Sharp and programs like it are vital to getting key information to the public. At the end of the day, Bernick said you can’t control whether someone implements positive changes in their own life. “But even if you get one person to change, that’s more than you had before. From a health perspective, getting that one person is good.”