Can a new specialized program delay dementia?

GAINESVILLE Fla. – Memory loss, trouble with speech, and mood changes are some of the warning signs of dementia. While most symptoms aren’t noticeable until a person reaches his or her sixties or seventies, scientists say changes in the brain begin decades earlier. Now a specialized prevention program, started at the first signs of cognitive decline, may maximize a person’s quality of life.

When he was 20 years old Fred, Guggenheimer fell head over heels for Julie. The couple took their wedding vows four months after they met. That was 59 years ago.

Fred said, “It says in sickness and in health. So, I’m going to do all I can to uphold what I promised the lord I was going to do.”

Now Fred is a caregiver for his wife who has been diagnosed with dementia.

Fred detailed, “I’ve seen her sit there and just put her hands, cause you know she’s confused. And then she just cries.”

Glenn Smith, PhD, is a Clinical Neuropsychologist in the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, and was part of a Mayo Clinic research team that developed habit-healthy actions to benefit independence and thinking.

“Instead of trying to find the one thing we should be doing to help them, we should be trying everything we can think of,” said Smith.

Professor Smith continues to work with seniors and their families at the University of Florida.

HABIT focuses on five strategies that can improve cognitive functioning in patients with mild impairment, starting with 60 minutes of exercise, five days a week.

“The data’s pretty solid that physical activity and exercise helps one maintain brain health,” Smith said.

Researchers advocate keeping a calendar and taking notes. Some commercialized computer games are part of the program. Wellness tracking, monitoring meals, sleep and stress is one component. Also, staying socially connected.

Fred Guggenheimer believes the support is critical, especially as his wife’s dementia progresses.

Fred said, “We can’t back it up any. The best we can hope for is this will slow it down.”

In addition to HABIT, researchers in Florida are currently testing three of the five cognition strategies in what’s called the PEACEOFMND study (Physicial Exercise and Cognitive Engagement Outcomes for Mild Neurocognitive Disorder). The HABIT program has sites in Arizona, Minnesota and Florida.