Monday, May 14, 2012

The Purpose of Purpose

For years now, doctors and scientists have thought that Alzheimer's was a disease that was caused by plaque and tangles within the brain. They supposed that there was some sort of illness that caused the plaque to grow, somehow resulting in, or concurrent with, some tangles in the protein strands (I think) that killed off those cells, resulting in the dementia-like behaviour that we call Alzheimer's.

Now they are beginning to think differently.

Some scientists were trying to understand why they couldn't figure out what was causing this stuff to grow, tangle and kill, and then asked themselves if they had it all backwards. Was there some sort of problem with the cells themselves? Were they somehow weakened, unable to function quite properly? Did this cause them to become tangled, and somehow result in the growth of the plaque that they saw? While they are not quite sure about this yet, it is proving to be a more viable explanation for many reasons which I didn't understand from the interview I just heard on the radio.

So just what is it that these people are suggesting?

In a nutshell, they are repeating one thing that we already know, and then they are adding a new bit of information that may have very confirming consequences for many of us. First, they are reminding us of that old truth, "Use it or lose it." If we don't use our brain, or even small sections of it, we run the very real risk of it giving out on us. This is why they suggest doing "mental exercise", such as crossword puzzles or other mental puzzles, to help keep our brains engaged. The problem is, if you haven't done them for your whole life, and have little interest in them, why should you bother? Sudoku is a great puzzle, but if you've never seen it before, as most people over 75 haven't, then it seems kind of silly to say "do them".

They have recognized that our "mental exercise" needs to be relevant. One example they gave was of an elderly man who been a doctor his whole life, who was now suffering from dementia. He was an awful patient, and gave everyone a very hard time. Then one day someone realized that what this man wanted, more than anything, was to be a doctor again. They gave him the suit he used to wear when he was making his rounds, and allowed him to join the other doctors on their rounds of the nursing home. Not only did he prove to be a great patient after that, but he was also able to give the doctors some very real and practical advice.

These scientists who are studying this new theory of Alzheimer's are putting together a few very simple ideas in a new way, and I am certain that we will hear great things from them in the near future. They have realized, for example, that there are parts of the brain that become active when we do good works, either by finishing a difficult project or engaging in service to others. These are the parts that give off those chemicals that make us feel good. If these parts of the brain are not active, they, too, will have less blood flowing to them and can become weakened.

In other words, it is not enough to merely keep your brain active, you have to keep it active in ways that help you feel good, in ways that are relevant to you. Your work has to have meaning.

Years ago, grandparents naturally did this through their involvement with their grandchildren. They were the ones who helped in the raising and training of the young. They shared their stories, offered their advice, and still partook in the functioning of both the community and the household. They were an active participant in the life of the community, and their input was valued. (For the most part, he says, thinking of that ubiquitous  uncle who always asks the nephews and nieces to pull his finger.)

Once again, we are seeing the wisdom of helping people engage in relevant service to the community and to humanity. Not only does this help make our world a better place, but it also seems to have very positive benefits on our personal health, which also helps cut the overall price of healthcare, which, in turn, frees up more money to help in other social and community projects. Oh, this just goes on and on, light upon light.

Now, there was something else I wanted to say about Alzheimer's, but I can't remember what it was.

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