Photo; Adam Scotti

By Neale McDevitt

It sounds a bit like the lead in to an old Vaudeville joke: What do nuns and truck drivers have in common? But the answer – they are both more prone to developing neurodegenerative disease and dementia than people in other milieus – is no laughing matter.

“The old adage ‘Use it or lose it’ really applies to your brain,” says Jens Pruessner, Director, McGill Centre for Studies in Aging. “Nuns are characterized by spending long hours isolated praying and in a very ritualistic, routine-type of environment and truck drivers spend long, mundane hours on the road with very little going on mentally. Studies have shown both to be more prone to develop a neurodegenerative disease in old age because they haven’t been very active mentally.”

If those same nuns and truckers had signed up to be part of the Prevention of Neurological Diseases in Everyone at Risk (PONDER) project, however, those high rates of dementia might be significantly reduced.

A collaboration between the McGill Centre for Studies in Aging and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, PONDER is a two-pronged project that offers free cognitive training to the general public while also creating an extensive database of longitudinal cognitive assessments of adult subjects that will give researchers a more complete understanding of neurodegenerative disease and the steps that can be taken to prevent it. After two years as a pilot project, PONDER is actively seeking participants and, says Pruessner, the more the merrier.

 Online games that actually benefit your brain

“The attraction for the general population is that we are offering something that has been shown to benefit people. Cognitive training is good for you,” says Pruessner, who also points out that PONDER is free, open to everyone and is entirely online, meaning that participants can take part from anywhere they have a computer and Internet access, including from the comfort from their home.

Once participants register with the program, they will have full access to a variety of “game-like” problems and puzzles that test specific cognitive domains such as memory, attention and spatial navigation. All these exercises have been shown to build up people’s “cognitive reserve,” says Pruessner.

“Studies show that cognitive training has a significant effect on preserving high cognitive function in old age. The idea is that the more intellectual capacity you have to begin with, the more of a buffer you have that will prevent you from being afflicted with neurodegeneration or dementia,” he says. “Dementia is like descending a mountain – it takes longer to reach the bottom if you start at 1,000 feet than if you start at 100 feet.”

While this type of cognitive training is most effective when done at a young age when the brain is still developing, studies have shown it will also benefit adults – even people who have already been diagnosed with dementia.

“There is the inevitable demise [with Alzheimer’s and other disorders] and there is no cure in sight at this point,” says Pruessner. “But these interventions will at least slow down its progress and, in some cases, they might slow it down enough to actually allow you to keep functioning to the point that your maintain your independence for the rest of your life – which, of course, would be quite a success in itself.”

Long-term study means quick response

The PONDER project is all the more important these days because, ironically, advances in medical science have been successful at combating and treating a variety of illnesses and prolonging people’s lives. “Some researchers argue that, if we lived to 150, we would all get dementia,” says Pruessner. “That we are living longer and longer means we will have to treat more and more cases of neurodegerative disease.”

According to PONDER’s website (click here), while one in 13 Canadians between the ages of 65 and 74 years is affected by Alzheimer’s and related dementias, this number changes to one in nine between ages 75 to 84, and one in four over the age of 85. It is estimated that, by the year 2030, the total number of Canadians suffering from neurodegenerative diseases will reach 750,000.

On top of the free cognitive training, which people can do as often as they like, PONDER requires participants to undergo a neuropsychological assessmemnt upon registering with the program. Completely confidential, the results will give researchers a baseline profile for each participant against which future tests can be compared.

By tracking an individual’s cognitive performance over time, researchers will be able to flag a noticeable drop in performance, after which the individual will be contacted and offered more complete assessments to pinpoint if, in fact, they are facing the onset of dementia. Here is where the project’s long-term scope proves most beneficial.

“Let’s say you have an IQ of 140 when you first join our program and when you then get tested with memory complaints at the age of 65 and you come out of the IQ testing with 120, most doctors would give you a clean bill of health and say you’re absolutely normal – in fact you’re above-average. The fact that you’ve lost 20 points wouldn’t be detected because there was no pre-assessment to serve as the baseline,” says Pruessner.

“But if we start following you when you’re in your 40s, we can track you over time and we might be able to pick up changes that occur in your performance much earlier. We can then plan for early interventions in addition to cognitive training that would help improve maintain the quality of your life enormously.”

For more information about PONDER, including how to register, go here.

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October 22, 2012