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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Friday, September 7, 2007

Staying sharp at the AARP convention

By Elizabeth Cooney, Globe Correspondent

There were plenty of jokes about senior moments before a panel of neuroscientists began their discussion of how older people can stay sharp.

This was the AARP annual conference, after all, with oldies music piped through the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center and ads for bladder control drugs plastered in the restrooms. Gail Sheehy was competing for the crowd's attention, the doctors noted, with her session in another meeting room on "Sex and the Seasoned Woman."

But the four panelists, three from Brigham and Women's Hospital and one from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, were as serious as the crowd about how to identify, prevent and deal with cognitive decline and dementia.

They explained how memories are retrieved and noted that new brain cells and connections can continue to be made, contrary to previous beliefs.

"It's possible to learn new tricks even though we are old dogs," said Dr. Dennis J. Selkoe, co-director of the Center for Neurologic Diseases at the Brigham.

Dr. Gary L. Gottlieb, president of the Brigham and a geriatric psychiatrist, warned that depression and anxiety can lead to problems with memory that may be confused with dementia.

"The great news is depression is treatable," he said. "There are drugs people can tolerate and psychotherapies people can use."

Dr. David A. Drachman, a professor of neurology at UMass, urged audience members to protect their brains by wearing seatbelts, eating a good diet, and keeping cholesterol and blood pressure under control.

"You are never going to be as young as you are today," he said, to more than a few chuckles.

Dr. Reisa Sperling, director of therapeutic trials in Alzheimer's disease at the Brigham, had a suggestion and a plea.

Learn ballroom dancing, she said, to combine mental and physical activity with social interaction.

And volunteer for clinical trials.

"I think a cure is in someone's test tube, if we can figure out which one," she said. "It takes people to come forward to be participants in trials to test them out."

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 05:29 PM
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