Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Milestones in Life's Journey

My day begins with music when my radio comes on a few minutes before the alarm tells me it is time to jump out of bed. Last week, I heard a song by Hometown News called “Minivan.” The song tells a story about the milestones in a man’s life through the vehicles he owns. Dad trades in his Corvair for a butt ugly station wagon. The trade was so traumatic for a young boy that he hid beneath the dashboard when they drove through town. Then as he grows up, another milestone, he buys his own car…a four by four…and cruises for chicks. Of course, life doesn’t stand still so eventually, when he has kids of his own, it is time to trade in his pride and joy for a minivan.

As we travel through life’s journey, our trip is marked with milestones. From our first breath to our last one, we meet milestones with anticipation, or perhaps regret.

While day-to-day humdrum events fade into memory, milestones are set apart with their own set of reminiscences fraught with feelings. Our entire lives we move along looking forward to the next milestone. Do you remember how you wanted to be an adult so your parents couldn’t tell you what to do? Since being an adult took too long, you may have settled for getting your driver’s license—another milestone. Graduation, marriage, becoming a parent…more milestones.

The “Minivan” song struck a chord with me. It stayed on my mind, and I asked my son if he had heard the song.

“No,” Rob said, “but I’ve heard about it. One of the guys at work was talking about it.”

The song reminded me about a conversation at work last week. One of my co-workers mentioned how she and her family were ready to go out to eat and her oldest son, a teenager at the time, refused to go to town with them because they weren’t wearing designer jeans.

“He says he can’t believe he acted like that,” she said. “I was so upset at the time.” Now she laughs about it.

“That’s our job as parents,” I said. “We’re supposed to embarrass our kids.”

Looking back on those times that once mortified us can be some of our best memories. Distance can take away the anger and hurtful words and replace it with the powerful love we feel for family.

Sometimes family members talk about how embarrassing people with dementia can be. Especially those with frontotemporal dementia can be outspoken, or even rude, as they struggle with out-of-control emotions and verbal communication.

Each personality change is a milestone we dread. Jim, who had smoked from the time he was a young teenager until he was nearly fifty years old became completely intolerant of cigarette smoke. He constantly told his sisters, “You should quit smoking those damn cigarettes.” They merely laughed and agreed with him. Not satisfied with telling his sisters, Jim became focused on telling everyone he saw they should quit smoking. We walked out of Walmart one day and three or four people were sitting outside on a bench smoking. Jim walked over to them, pointed his finger to emphasize his words, and said, “You better quit smoking those damn cigarettes.” I hustled him toward the car before any of them had time to react.

As the disease progressed, Jim’s behavior became more erratic. On one trip to Eddie’s Drive-In, Jim picked up tip money off a table, and I made him put it back. We walked outside, and as I fastened his seatbelt, I discovered he had the salt and pepper shakers clutched tightly in his hands. When I took the shakers back inside, the waitress laughed and said, “Just when you thought you had him figured out he did something different.”  

I finally reached a milestone when I knew the disease was to blame, not Jim, and I was no longer embarrassed. In fact, I’ve found with age, I’m not easily embarrassed. When I was younger, I might have found myself beneath the dashboard just like the boy in the song. Now that I’ve traveled many miles along life’s journey, my philosophy is that it’s more important to see the view.

Copyright © June 2012

Monday, June 11, 2012

Alzheimer’s Research: A Little Mouse Told Me

Picture courtesy Michael Muin
At our last Alzheimer’s Board meeting, we were treated to a tour of Missouri University’s Center for Translational Neuroscience. Our tour included the stroke laboratory, behavior core facilities, surgical suite, cell culture facilities, and neuropathology-histology laboratories.

This was the first time I had ever seen the inside of a research lab and it was doubly interesting to be inside a lab dedicated to studying the brain. One reason mouse models work well for Alzheimer’s research is their brains similarity to human brains.

I was impressed by how Alzheimer’s treatments can be evaluated, and the extensive research conducted on exercise and diet. Agnes Simonyi, PhD, is the researcher who “trains” the mice to find their way through a maze to measure spatial memory.

We saw the different mazes Dr. Simonyi uses in her research. One maze has symbols around the sides, such as an X or plus sign. One symbol has an opening beneath it. The mouse runs around and around until he discovers the opening. Each day the mouse is in the maze, he can find the opening by making fewer trips around the parameter, until eventually he heads straight for the symbol that shows the way out of the maze.

You wouldn’t think that watching a mouse run around in circles could be so fascinating, but the studies prove which therapies improve the mouse’s performance. When Dr. Simonyi showed us the graph, a few things became evident. Food and exercise make a big difference in memory.

One of the tests evaluated green tea. Oh, yeah, I thought, a human would probably have to drink a gallon of green tea a day to show a similar improvement in memory. As if she read my thoughts, Dr. Simonyi said, “The mice were given the equivalent of two cups a day.” She went on to show a wheel where the mice could exercise. It looked kind of like a treadmill for the little fellows—one of those contraptions were you run and run but don’t go anywhere. I didn’t see any little TVs like Brian’s Gym has. They were just running around and around for the fun of it, I guess.

The graphs showed  mice that exercised and drank green tea were the smartest of the groups, followed by the ones that only drank green tea. At the bottom were the mice that resemble most of us—not enough exercise and not paying attention to filling our bodies with antioxidants.

Dr. Grace Sun talked about her research comparing Alzheimer’s mice to their healthier counterparts. She talked about current Alzheimer’s therapies and how available drugs work only for a limited time. One of the studies Dr. Sun is working on is how a healthy diet, exercise, and stress reduction can be preventative therapies for Alzheimer’s. Some of the foods she mentioned as having a positive impact on memory are grapes, curry, green tea, and elderberries.

Dr. Sun said MU will host an international symposium on elderberries in June of 2013. These healthy berries are plentiful in Missouri and have always been popular for jelly and wine. “The Power of purple” in the June 2012 issue of Rural Missouri talks about the promise of elderberries as a super fruit. They aren’t the kind of berry you would eat fresh—they are too tart and not that tasty without a little sweetening.

I have often promoted the healthy brain initiative on my blog and the rule of “what’s healthy for your heart is healthy for your brain.” Nothing drives that home like having a researcher stand in front of you and talk about their personal observations of the benefits of a healthy diet and exercise.

Part of research is geared toward delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s. It would seem that an important part of the key is in our supermarkets, our gardens, and maybe even along the fencerows and road right-of-ways in rural Missouri.

If we pump up on exercise and eat a brain healthy diet, we can follow the example of the mouse in the maze. I’m looking forward to stocking up on healthy food and then being able to go straight to my car in Walmart’s parking lot instead of running around in circles until I happen upon it. I know it can happen because a little mouse told me—with a little help from his friends, the researchers at the Center for Translational Neuroscience.

Copyright © June 2012 by L. S. Fisher