Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Heart and Brain Connection

February is heart month. First, we have Valentine’s Day with heart-shaped reminders of love, and our thoughts turn to romance. With romantic love, sometimes the heart and brain may not seem to be connected. Our brain may tell us that we should or should not love someone, while a recalcitrant heart leads us in a different direction.

I attended an annual event Saturday that is much more geared to health than a box of Valentine candy—Go Red for Women. The room was filled with a veritable sea of ladies dressed in red. Sally Lockett, a local businesswoman, pulls this event together each year. We were entertained by a fashion show of vintage red dresses while we dined on a yummy, heart-healthy lunch.

Being so involved with the Alzheimer’s Association, I have long been aware that what is healthy for your heart is good for your brain. A healthy diet and exercise benefits both the heart and the brain.

The Alzheimer’s Association and the Centers for Disease Control collaborated on a report about the heart/brain connection. The Healthy Brain Initiative: A National Public Roadmap for Maintaining Cognitive Health lays the groundwork to promote brain health. Vascular health and cognitive health are intertwined. The Initiative’s goal: “To maintain or improve the cognitive performance of all adults.”

When you think about it, a healthy body improves quality of life. We would all rather be active throughout our lifetimes that suffer from declining health. When we indulge in unhealthy activities are risk factors for heart disease, mental decline, cancer, and numerous other issues that can go wrong as we age. Smoking, excessive drinking, overeating, or sedentary lifestyles can creep up on us as a major problem that predicts a bleak future instead of the one that we want.

Maybe we can’t change everything at once about our lives but right now is a good time to set personal goals to work toward heart health and improve our chances of maintaining cognitive throughout the years ahead.

Good for your heart—and also good for your brain:

• Exercise! Get up off the couch and move.

• Increase your nutritious food intake. Yes, I said increase. Fill up on fruits, vegetables, fish and lean poultry, and whole grains. You’ll eat a lot less unhealthy food. You can lose weight without going hungry.

• Drink in moderation.

• Don’t smoke. If you smoke, quit. It’s healthier for you and everyone around you.

• Learn healthy methods of relaxation—meditation, exercise, massages to name a few.

• Exercise your brain by working puzzles, playing games, taking a class, reading, writing, or any activity that allows you to hone your cognitive skills.

• Increase social interaction—spend time with friends and family, church family, or volunteer.

• Good dental health is important. Get regular checkups and floss every day.

The list gives me ideas for ways I can personally reduce risk of developing debilitating conditions, but I haven’t been able to get my act together. When I had my gym membership, after my workout I was so hungry I couldn’t resist drive-thru windows. Now that I’m eating healthier, I don’t exercise enough.

I’ve managed to lose ten pounds by making better food choices and that in turn is snowballing into improving my overall health. Imagine my surprise when I went in to have my follow up endoscopy and the nurse asked, “Is your blood pressure always that low?” It was low enough that I hadn’t even recognized the numbers as blood pressure.

I’m a work in progress. My goal now is to make sure that I progress in the right direction. I know that if I put my heart into it, I can do it.

Copyright © 2012 L.S. Fisher

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Flowers for Alzheimer’s: Unlock the Mystery

In their quest for the key to unlock the mystery of Alzheimer’s, researchers are taking a closer look at tau. The hallmarks of Alzheimer’s are plaques of the protein beta amyloid and tangles of the protein tau.

Just exactly what causes the plaques and tangles are somewhat of a mystery, as is their exact role in the disease. Most research has been on ways to eliminate plaques, but a study at Columbia University Medical Center, New York, delved into how tau tangles spread in the brain.

Of course, this study was not done on humans—it was based on tau introduced into the frontal lobes of mice. The valuable insight from this study is that tau appears to spread like a virus, or cancer, jumping from neuron to neuron, across synapses, and spreading to other parts of the brain.

This discovery is a clue. According to Dr. Scott A. Small, co-author of the article published in  PLoS One, this discovery indicates that in the future early detection and treatment could be used to stop the spread of tau in the human brain. Small said, “It is during this early stage that the disease will be most amenable to treatment. That is the exciting clinical promise down the road.”
Another article published in the February issue of Science Express also compares the spread of Alzheimer’s disease to cancer. In fact, this is a study of how the cancer drug bexarotene has cleared the beta amyloid protein (plaques) from test animals by increasing ApoE. Cognitive function in the mouse models improved.
This is an already developed and tested drug so the process of determining what dose levels would be effective in humans to treat Alzheimer’s may move somewhat faster. The study has a cautionary note for caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s to not ask doctors to prescribe bexarotene for Alzheimer’s. This is an unapproved use of the drug.
I’m not sure why, but for some reason as I reviewed these two articles, I was reminded of a book I read when I was a teenager called Flowers for Algernon. Maybe it was all the talk about experiments on laboratory mice and the way success may not necessarily translate to humans. In Daniel Keye’s book, the story is a series of journal entries written by Charlie, a man with an IQ of 68, who has the same experimental surgery that improved the intelligence of the laboratory mouse, Algernon. After the surgery, Charlie’s IQ skyrockets to genius level. The surgery on Charlie and Algernon has the complete appearance of success—that is until Algernon begins to decline mentally and dies. Charlie’s decline is as sure as Algernon’s, but he requests flowers be placed on Algernon’s grave.
Just like in Algernon, success in mice doesn’t necessarily mean success in humans, but it is a start. By attacking the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s, these two scientific studies show new approaches to stopping Alzheimer’s in its tracks. Science moves slowly and it will be many more years before this discovery will translate to an effective treatment for the 5.4 million Americans with Alzheimer’s. 
The goal set during review of the National Alzheimer's Plan is to prevent and effectively treat Alzheimer’s disease by 2025. Although thirteen years seems like a long time, it would be worth the wait if we can place flowers on the grave of Alzheimer’s—not on the graves of those who die from the disease.
Copyright © February 2012 by L. S. Fisher

Friday, February 3, 2012

Family Circle: A Funeral and a Birthday Party

My Mom on Her 85th Birthday
A family is a circle of love that surrounds your heart. If you are from a large family, you may not see some of your relatives for years at a time. Unfortunately, it seems like funerals are the prime place to see cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters.

I’ve had two chances to connect with family members in the past week. As tradition would have it, the first family get-together was a funeral. Aunt Mable was Jim’s aunt, and when I called her “Mable” she corrected me. “I’m Aunt Mable,” she said in her gruff tone. I never made that mistake again. After spending more time with Aunt Mable, I realized she played an important role in many lives. In addition to her own large family, she opened her heart and home to nieces and nephews who needed a surrogate mom.

Aunt Mable developed Alzheimer’s during her last years. It was heartbreaking for her children to visit her knowing that some days she would not recognize them.

Her funeral was a lovely celebration of her life, and Aunt Mable would have been pleased to see the hugs shared between family members that had been separated for too long. I had planned to attend the visitation and not stay for the services, but when I sat next to Uncle Jewell and Aunt Mary, I just couldn’t leave. Seeing them brought back memories of many fun weekends together. We went on fishing trips, to bluegrass festivals, or sometimes we had big jam sessions at our house.

I remember one time we went to the Truman Dam Visitors’ Center. Uncle Jewell was clowning around so much that people began to follow him around mistaking him for a paid entertainer.

My Mom, Lula Capps, Playing Music
Funerals are a bittersweet connection with family, but birthday parties are much more upbeat. Saturday, we celebrated my mom’s 85th birthday at an intimate gathering of more than a hundred relatives and close friends.

The party took place at the Ambush, once a favorite honky-tonk in Morgan County. It is past its heyday, but judging from the cars and people crowding into the restaurant and bar, it made a one-night comeback.

With a family the size of ours, not everyone was able to make it. As I looked at my sons and their families, I couldn’t help but compare my childhood to theirs. I’m not even sure how many first cousins I have, but my oldest grandkids have only two first cousins, and my youngest grandkids only three.

During my growing up years, my cousins were my playmates and best friends. We collectively share memories of playing endless games at grandma and grandpa’s house on lazy summer Saturdays. During the evening hours, we chased fireflies while mom and my uncles played guitars and sang country or gospel songs.

At the party, my brother, Jimmy, and a friend took the stage to play music. My mom, true to her normal age-defying behavior, joined my brother for a while to play her guitar and sing with him. Later, two of my Fisher family nephews and their group played. In my mind’s eye, I could see Jim smiling to see his family tradition carried on by a younger generation.

As the evening wore down, my brother announced that they were going to sing one last song. After a variety of country, southern rock, and beer-drinking music, they closed with a gospel song. Voices blended as family members, young and old, sang the praiseful words of “How Great Thou Art.”

As we hugged our farewells, we remained optimistic that our next family gathering would be a happy occasion and goodbye, a temporary break in the family circle.

Copyright February 2012 by L. S. Fisher