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July 25, 2008

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Friday, July 25, 2008

Eat your vegetables, and plenty of them.

That was part of Dr. Gary H. Oberlender's advice for reducing the risk of dementia during a talk Thursday evening at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

About 100 people attended "Dementia: What Is It and How We Can Reduce Our Risk," part of the King's Grant lecture series offered at the museum in conjunction with the "Amazing Feats of Aging" exhibit.

Oberlender, a consultant in geriatric medicine, outlined causes and risk factors for cognitive (mental) impairment in seniors, compared the different types of dementia and gave recommendations to "maintain your brain."

Above all, he emphasized, "It ain't always Alzheimer's."

Alzheimer's is a disease of the brain that causes two-thirds of dementia cases, Oberlender said. Patients lose key intellectual abilities such as memory, calculation, language, judgment, orientation and personality. There is a progressive decline in mental function, though most patients are not physically affected until late in the disease.

Most patients see the onset of the disease after age 70 to 75, and it does not appear to be connected with family history, Oberlender said.

The Alzheimer's Association suggests staying physically, socially and mentally active to prevent the disease, because "If you don't use it, you'll lose it," he said.
Alzheimer's is thought to show up more in women and in people with higher IQs, Oberlender said, "so you smart women, start eating lettuce."

He spoke at length about the role nutrition may play in preventing dementia.

"As a physician, I believe nutrition hasn't been given enough emphasis in modern medicine," he said.

A 2006 study in the medical journal "Neurology" showed that people who ate four or more servings of fresh vegetables a day had a 38 percent slower mental decline, he said.

Also, a 2005 study in "Alzheimer's and Dementia" found a 66 percent lower incidence of Alzheimer's when people took 400 micrograms of folic acid a day, and a 63 percent lower incidence of the disease with more than 1.3 milligrams of vitamin B-6.

Four hundred micrograms of folic acid is equal to "five or six servings of fresh fruit, or two or three big salads a day," Oberlender said.

Fresh vegetables and fruits have the most benefit, he said, but flash-frozen produce is "almost as good." Canned, overcooked and processed foods do not have as much nutritional value.

"Go organic when it's possible," Oberlender said, adding that the long-term effects of chronic exposure to toxins in food are not known.

People should also eat more food with omega-3 fatty acids, such as wild-caught coldwater fish, almonds, sunflowers and flax seeds, he said, and drink moderate amounts of red wine.

Even people who eat a balanced diet should take a multivitamin, two to three grams of fish oil and 500 to 1,000 mcg of folic acid per day, he added. People also need 15 to 25 minutes of sun exposure several times a week to ensure they get enough vitamin D.

Dementia is one cause of cognitive impairment, but it is certainly not the only one. There are many factors that can cause problems with memory and brain function later in life, Oberlender said.

Depression is one factor common in seniors, but it can be hard to diagnose because the symptoms are not typical, Oberlender said.

"In seniors, depression can show up as cognitive dysfunction. The person may not even feel depressed," he said. "It's absolutely critical for doctors to evaluate for depression in seniors."

Stroke, hardening of the arteries and thyroid problems can cause mental impairment, as can side effects from prescription drugs. Alternatively, a person who cannot hear well may be misinterpreted as not understanding or remembering conversations.

Oberlender noted that many doctors use the diagnosis "probable Alzheimer's" because of uncertainty and the disease's overlap with other forms of dementia.

After the lecture, many people remained to ask questions of Oberlender. Local attorney Robert Haley was one of them.

"A lot of my clients are caretakers for seniors, so I try to get as much information on these issues as possible," Haley said. "It was a great seminar and a great speaker."

Also among the audience were some employees and 24 residents from King's Grant.

"The lecture was certainly relevant to many of our residents and staff, and it was a benefit to the community at large," said Resident Services Director Becky Farrar.

"You could see the interest in the audience."

The next lecture in the series will be "Senior Navigator" by Ben Garrett of the Virginia Department for the Aging, held from noon to 1 p.m. July 30 at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

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