November 07, 2014
By Andy Hyland
|Patricia and Charles Stapleton talk with counseling and psychology doctoral student Jennifer Seeley at the Smart Aging class|
Thursday mornings this fall, about 70 Kansas City area residents have been gathering in a conference room at the KU Clinical Research Center in Fairway, Kan.,to get the latest information on healthy aging and the brain.
The Alzheimer's Disease Center at the University of Kansas Medical Center is sponsoring a 12-week "Smart Aging" class designed to take the knowledge gained by researchers at the center about lifestyle factors and other means to improve and maintain brain health and pass it on to members of the community.
"The information that we are giving to our participants is founded in the research that we do here," says David Johnson, Ph.D., director of neuropsychology for the KU Alzheimer's Disease Center and associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas. "One hand reaches over to the other. They're intricately intertwined."
Omar Ramirez, coordinator of the center's Alzheimer's Prevention Program, helped develop the curriculum for the course. Graduate students present the material and help ensure that the class attendees follow some of the advice they're getting.
"The big things they come to learn are research-based information on diet and exercise," Ramirez says. "They want to be able to get reliable information and learn the tools to apply healthy behavior and lower their risk for Alzheimer's disease."
The KU Alzheimer's Disease Center is one of 29 centers to be nationally designated and funded by the National Institute on Aging and is the only center of its kind in Kansas and Kansas City. It offers patients and families who are affected by Alzheimer's disease information and resources about the disease, helps with obtaining a diagnosis, and provides opportunities for volunteers to participate in drug trials, support groups, clinical research projects and other special programs.
Research conducted at the center points to a healthy diet and good exercise habits as key ways to help prevent the onset of Alzheimer's. Trials at the center are ongoing to build up data to support these claims.
"Basically, what's good for the heart is good for the brain, is what we're discovering," Johnson says.
Though one in three seniors in America dies with Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia, KU scientists say that if researchers can delay the onset of the disease by five years, it would cut the prevalence of the disease in half.
During classes, older adults frequently jump in with specific questions about which foods are better to eat than others. For many of the participants, it can be difficult to sort through a deluge of information and recommendations in the media and elsewhere.
"I like the fact that this is based in research," says Elizabeth Nieters of Overland Park, a class participant. "They have facts to back up their recommendations."
While one recent class touched on the federal government's recommended daily food allowances for older adults, another session focused on social engagement. The class learned about "169 things to do that were better than Netflix," and other ways to help connect with their peers all around Kansas City.
Some members of the class have also volunteered to participate in the clinical research studies the center hosts to help find new ways to prevent the disease.
Betty Erickson of Kansas City, Mo., knows the difficulties that can accompany Alzheimer's disease well; her mother had the disease.
"I don't want my children to have to go through what I did with my mother." Erickson says. "I want to prevent it, or at least, I want to try."
Johnson said that while classes are currently full, the center would like to offer the courses to more adults in the future if additional resources can be found.