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A scientist’s personal journey to prevent dementia
January 03, 2019 By: Nicole Anderson, Director of The Ben & Hilda Katz Inter-Professional Research Program in Geriatric and Dementia Care; Senior Scientist, Rotman Research Institute

During an annual visit to Minnesota about 10 years ago, I started noticing changes in my dad. I had been doing this kind of work for many years and he started to show a hallmark symptom of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) - repeating questions all the time. He never had a great memory to begin with so the rest of the family chalked it up to stress or aging or what have you, but I detected something more than that was going on. I encouraged my mom and him to get it checked out. He ended up at the Mayo Clinic to be assessed and was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment at the time.

Once he was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, my mom asked what books she could read about MCI. When I looked into it, I was really surprised that there weren’t any books for a lay population out there. There are books on all sorts of obscure topics, but not on MCI for a lay population.
 
I remember the day I walked into Dr. Angie Troyer’s office here at Baycrest and asked her if she realized there are no books for MCI for a lay population. She had looked for books too and couldn’t find any. It was that day that we decided to write one - Living with Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Guide to Maximizing Brain Health and Reducing Risk of Dementia - is was the first comprehensive book to be published on Mild Cognitive Impairment. Dr. Troyer and I co-wrote it along with the help of our colleague Dr. Kelly Murphy. It took us about three years and it was published in 2012.

I remember when he was diagnosed with MCI, he was extremely relieved that he didn’t have dementia. A lot of people have a similar reaction. Not everyone with MCI develops dementia, but I knew in his case, he did have Alzheimer’s pathology, it just wasn’t severe enough to cause dementia, but I didn’t want to burst his bubble of being relieved. It progressed to Alzheimer’s and it took its typical course.

rona_img-(3).jpgLike many people with the disease, it robbed my dad not only of his basic functional abilities, but of his talents. My dad earned a bachelor of fine arts in 1958 and used his skills to build a successful career in advertising. Some of his influential work included Wheaties cereal, Pork the Other White Meat, Got Milk?, and later installments of the This is Your Brain on Drugs campaign. If you have a stack of brand loyalty cards in your wallet, you have my dad to thank for that. American Airlines asked him for a campaign to boost customer loyalty, and he came up with American Advantage, the first national brand loyalty “points” system. My dad became known as “The Godfather of Minneapolis Advertising” for his profound commitment to mentoring and nurturing young talent. Upon retirement, my dad returned to his true passion, and produced hundreds of paintings, many of which earned international awards.

As the disease progressed, my dad could no longer paint, or draw, or carry out his usual rants about the Minnesota Vikings. Alzheimer’s disease changed the last 10 years of my dad’s life, but it did not rob him of his character. He was known as “The Gentle Giant” at Folkestone, the memory care home that helped my mother take such great care of him for the last three years. My dad passed away on August of 2018 and he will be missed by everyone who had the great fortune of having him in their lives.

My experience with my dad motivates me more to answer the question, “How can we prevent dementia?” My research addresses cognitive, health, and lifestyle factors in aging brain health and how we can maintain brain health and reduce the risk of dementia as we age.

At the cognitive level, my work is helping to discover exactly how memory and attention changes in healthy older adults and in those who are heading towards dementia. I’m exploring how these are reflected in changes in brain function, and then test the effects of memory and attention interventions designed to reverse those changes.

At the health level, I test the benefits of exercise and diet interventions. I study how conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, affect our thinking abilities and brain health.

Finally, at the lifestyle level, I examine the relationship between cognitive functioning in later life and staying engaged at an older age through activities such as volunteering or late-life learning. Specifically, I study how interventions like volunteering, music lessons, and learning a second language improve cognitive and brain health.
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