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Gray matter

Bill Duffey coached the St. Pius High School boys basketball team for 10 years, but when he recently ran into one of his former players, he encountered one of life’s frustrating moments.

“I’ll see people that I’ve known forever and all of sudden I’ll blank out their name,” Duffey said. “I saw a guy that played for me for three years at St. Pius and I couldn’t remember his first name.”

Duffey, 66, said it’s something he’s experienced before.

“The things that are obviously increasing are the number of times, for example, I go to the garage from another part of the house to do something and I get to the garage and I can’t remember why,” he said. “Misplacing things, leaving things, cell phones, keys. Crazy things like that. These are things that are happening more and more frequently.”

In many ways, it’s just a normal part of aging, said Dr. Gary Rosenberg, a professor at the University of New Mexico who is head of neurology at UNM’s Health Sciences Center.

“Memory loss is complicated,” he said. “Most of the time in your younger 50s and 60s, it’s not indicative of a disease. It’s just slowness of thinking and having difficulty in pulling out information. It’s probably normal, particularly names, that sort of thing.”


Kimberly McCain, 48, shows fruits rich in anti-oxidants she prepares for her daughters as an after-school snack. Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging, says simple lifestyle changes can help combat, and sometimes reverse, the memory loss that comes with getting older. (The Associated Press)

The brain creates matter called amyloids that accumulate along the brain’s pathways and, as people age, those amyloids are not expunged as readily as when they were younger, Rosenberg said. This leads to a clogging of those pathways, slowing or hindering the brain’s ability to quickly or thoroughly process information that is stored there.

Arresting or reversing this minor but irritating mild cognitive failure is one of the hot topics among neuro-researchers, he said. UNM currently has an ongoing study researching that possibility, Rosenberg said.

One of the theories presented by UCLA professor Gary Small is that brain exercises can help stave off and even reverse mild cognitive failure.

While it makes intuitive sense that exercising the brain through use of crossword puzzles, reading and mind games helps, research has not definitively shown that, said Rosenberg and Dr. Williams Summers, a local neuropsychiatrist and doctor of internal medicine.

“There are some exercises that people have tested, but nothing really has been proven,” Rosenberg said. “There are programs you can get on the Internet and things like that. How effective these are still up in the air. I think keeping yourself reading, staying social, exercising, is probably the way to preserve as much brain function as possible.”

Summers pointed out that, while the idea makes sense in theory, it doesn’t work out in practice.

“Dr. Small came up with the concept that, if you exercise the brain, then it’s like exercising the body, it makes the heart better,” he said. “So you exercise the brain and it becomes better. It’s such an intuitively great idea that everyone assumed it was correct and charged forward. The problem recently is that’s been challenged and data supporting that concept just doesn’t fly.”

The brain, Summers said, does not function like muscles in the body.

“It’s my personal belief and my stated belief based on my studies that, most of the time, (memory loss) is a progressive illness that I liken unto rheumatoid arthritis of the brain,” he said. “It’s an inflammatory disease of the brain and it’s rather selective in how it goes around the brain. It appears to be a disease process that’s chemically driven.

“I’m not quite sure that brain exercise would be very effective at stopping it,” Summers added. “I’m not sure that heavy exercise would help rheumatoid arthritis. I do know that exercise does improve heart function, even after heart attacks, so there’s some logic but, in terms of general global things, I’m not sure it would have a major affect. There may be an effect, but I’m not sure it would be major.”

Rather, Summers has put his faith and research into dietary, antioxidant supplements that have shown promising results in his tests.

“What we’re trying to do with our formulation is give (the brain) the raw material to make new nerve cells,” Summers said. “Also, several of the components stimulate the birth of new nerve cells. And those new nerve cells go to areas of need and lay down.”

This, he said, may help patch over the areas that have become amyloid-clogged. And his tests appear to show a reversal of memory loss.

“To our surprise, we showed improvement at one month,” Summers said. “The strategy is you’re trying to improve nerve cell function, nerve cell number, nerve cell connectivity. Nerve cells are kind of shy; they don’t like to repair very quickly, like skin cells, for example. So one month, we were checking to see if we had compliance but, to our surprise there was highly significant improvement at one month even.”

As for Duffey, he said there is some concern about his forgetfulness, but not enough to seek attention yet.

“On the positive side, there is no dementia or Alzheimer’s in my family that I’m aware of,” he said. “I think it’s just an age-onset memory situation, but there’s no doubt the (incidents) are increasing. Now it’s to the point where, when I go somewhere, I almost have to have a list. ‘Do I have my keys? Do I have my wallet? Do I have my cellphone?'”