As director of the UCLA Longevity Center and professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, Small works to determine what can be done to help people forestall becoming a part of those statistics. From coordinated studies and clinical protocols conducted over the past decades, he and his colleagues have formulated conditions under which normal deterioration of brain matter can be slowed down. With a combined measure of humor and hope, he presents these possibilities — along with more than a few of the concerns and drawbacks people might have in facing the ramifications of the disease.
Indeed, the emotional impact of the illness is a grave one, and fear of losing one’s mental faculties often causes people to avoid even thinking about dementia. The dreaded word “cancer” used to be referred to in hushed tones as “the Big C.” Now the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease among the baby boomers has many of us wanting to bury our heads in the sand before we become self-aware of symptoms. Small describes the fear factor that has us avoiding mention of this terrorist disease by telling the story of a friend who couldn’t find his car in a mall parking lot. “He felt his memory was going — and fast. A security guard drove him around the lot’s several levels looking for his Mercedes, but he still couldn’t find it … started panicking. Just then the security guard said they’d had several upscale cars stolen in the last month …. My friend almost cried with relief — his car had been stolen! Thank God!”
Anyone of a certain age who can’t think of someone’s name — a famous actor or an old school friend or the neighbor down the block — or who has walked into their kitchen, faced the refrigerator and wondered why they are there, or who can’t recall by dinnertime what came in the mail that afternoon, has experienced the disconcerting sensation of fear such incidents provoke. They don’t, fortunately, always indicate the presence of “the Big A.” Small lists stress as a prime factor for an overburdened brain to malfunction now and then. And certainly the fear of developing Alzheimer’s can be stressful. “Chronic stress not only diminishes our quality of life, but it increases our risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease,” he states. “We can learn to manage our stress triggers better and lower their impact on our neuronal stability.”
A proactive stand — taking one’s brain health into one’s own hands — can actually serve to improve the odds for its health and longevity. Small identifies pertinent areas that can contribute to mental clarity and ongoing brain function, which include: the brain’s dietary needs, with ten brain-protecting foods; stimulation with memory-increasing techniques and exercising both the right and left hemispheres; and stress reduction through meditation and other relaxation strategies. These sound like standard recommendations for preventing and treating any number of ailments — heart disease, cancer, diabetes, mental health and obesity, among others. Is it surprising to learn that our very organ of intelligence, consciousness, and identity — the cerebrum — is affected by and responds to these basic requirements, too?