Switching On Sharper Memory

What if you could improve your memory with the flip of a switch? That's exactly what researchers at the University of Southern California and Wake Forest University have done. Theodore Berger, who is with
the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and holds the David Packard Chair in Engineering and is director of the USC Center for Neural Engineering, was part of a team that has discovered a way to help rats remember more clearly by using an electronic system that mimicks the way nerve impulses work. By using this innovative system, they were able to get rats to remember how to do something, even though the rats had been given drugs to make them forget.

The breakthrough is based upon recent learning about how the hippocampus works in enabling us to learn, by taking in information about an action, transmitting it from one region of the brain to another, and then bringing that information back when we need to repeat the action. This is how short-term memories become long-term memories. The team implanted an electronic prothesis into rats' brains that had been programmed with the information that should be residing in the brain but is blocked by drugs or some other problem. By flipping a switch the impulse from the prosthesis skips over the blockage to deliver the message and lets the rats remember. In other words, this little electronic device can do the same thing our brains do - transmit information from one region of the hippocampus to another, thus delivering a memory that had been wiped out.

The news release from USC and an article in the New York Times explain the elegant experiments far better than I can.

The potential for such a discovery is mind boggling. Imagine if scientists will be able to help dementia patients relearn how to do the tasks of daily living? I swear we are becoming more bionic everyday. (I have three friends who have had their knees replaced within the past three weeks.)

But there could be a dark side of which we must beware of. Since I read both science fiction books and conspiracy thrillers, I can also imagine such a breakthrough leading to the programming of minds. And that is a very scary thought. (Think: The Manchurian Candidate and other Cold War stories.)

Theodore Berger of USC was the lead author of “A Cortical Neural Prosthesis for Restoring and Enhancing Memory,” which was published in the Journal of Neural Engineering.

On Becoming 80

Just this week I attended a Day Wings luncheon. Day Wings is a group of older women in the First Congregational Church of Darien who meet monthly for fellowship. They had started the group 50 years ago or so because they all worked and couldn't make the day-time luncheons at church. So they had dinner together and called themselves Night Wing. Now, still friends, they are mostly over 80 and don't drive at night, and they switched the name to Day Wings. Although I'm not in their age group, I really enjoy their company and conversation and try to make the gatherings.

We were sitting on a deck in the sun overlooking the beautiful Holly Pond. Then, one member pulled out of her purse a piece of paper with a quote that our former senior minister Alfred Schmalz had read to a Saturday Smorgasbord gathering at church in the late 1960s. I enjoyed the piece so much, I just have to share it.

On Becoming 80

The first 80 years are the hardest. The second 80 is a succession of parties.

Everybody wants to carry your bag and help you up the stairs. If you forget anybody's name, or an appointment, or promise to be several places at the same time, you can explain that you are 80.

If your clothes don't match, or if you take someone else's coat by by mistake, or forget to mail a letter, you are 80.

It is a great deal better than being 65 or 70. At that age you are expected to retire to a little house in Florida and become a discontented, grumbling, bored has-been. But, if you survive til 80, everybody is surprised that you are alive, surprised that you can walk, surprised that you can talk above a whisper, surprised that you have lucid moments.

At 70, people are mad at you for everything. At 80, they forgive anything.

If you ask me, life begins at 80. Give thanks. YOU'VE GOT IT MADE.

Aging in Place + Gallivant Has New Executive Director

Aging in Place + Gallivant has a new executive director, Gina Zarra Blum. I met her at the organization's board meeting on Monday and was very impressed. We've put out a press release with the announcement.

This has felt like a great accomplishment after the long road we've been on to starting this nonprofit to help seniors to remain in their homes as they age. I've been working on getting this going for six years, starting with an initiative at my church (First Congregational Church of Darien) and then expanding to a town-wide pilot program of the Community Fund of Darien.

As we did research we learned that older adults needs four things to be able to thrive while remaining in their homes rather than entering institutions: access to information and referrals to trusted sources of help (nonprofits and vetted for-profits), transportation, handyman services and ways to stay connected.

Transportation was so important, we merged with Gallivant, which provides local transportation to seniors via an accessible van and a very nice town car. Gallivant uses a professional dispatcher to arrange the rides. Our board member Charlie England provides handyman services. He began doing this as a ministery through St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Darien. We also work with the library, the Town of Darien, the DCA and many nonprofits to keep our seniors connected to all the services which already exist to help them remain in our community.

I'm feeling really good about this new accomplishment. Welcome, Gina!

What To Say To Someone Who Is Sick

On Sunday The New York Times ran an article about what to say -- and not say -- to someone who is seriously ill. I found the piece to be truly enlightening, as I have often wondered what to say or do. Rather than reiterate all the tips in the article, I am including a link to it at the end of my blog so you can read it for yourself.
Years ago I visited an uncle who was dying, and my aunt said, "Doesn't he look great?" I was on the spot. But I couldn't bring myself to lie, so I said something specific and honest. My uncle's eyes were still very bright and very intelligent - taking everything in and radiating out again his wonderful spirit. So I spoke of his eyes and how bright they were. I said, "You're still you. I can see that twinkle." I always wondered if that was right. I kissed him and held his had and told him I loved him. This article made me feel I had done the right things.

The article was also timely for me because I had just this past week delivered a meal to a friend who had undergone double knee replacement. Again, I was relieved that I did some of the things the author said to do: I gave my friend a hug. I did offer something specific - a dinner. And I stayed for a visit in which we didn't just talk about the surgery and physical therapy and pain. We also talked about goings on in our church and our kids.

My friend said she was so grateful to people in our church (First Congregational Church of Darien) because so many members had been kind and helpful to her. She told me that one member had come over and read poetry to her, which she really loved.

And I thought, "Yes, that is what we need to do for others - bring beauty into their lives. Lift them out of misery with good stuff like poetry, literature, music or art."

Read on...

Published: June 10, 2011
A guide to what to say — and what not to say — to someone who’s sick.

Seniors' Health Is Better in Areas with Lots of Doctors

If you're wondering where to live, and you care about your health, choose a place with lots of primary care physicians. A recent study has shown that in areas with lots of primary care doctors, seniors do better. The seniors are less likely to be sent to the hospital because the doctors will treat them and manage the illness outside the hospital.

The research was conducted by the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, and it analyzed Medicare claims from 5.1 million beneficiaries. What's fascinating is that not only were hospitalizations 10% lower, but people over 65 had death rates that were 5% lower, when they lived in a place with a high concentration of doctors.

The data did show that Medicare spent a little bit more on patients in areas with more primary doctors. But I think it's worth it.

Read more in the New York Times:

Published: May 30, 2011
Older people in areas with high concentrations of primary care doctors are hospitalized less often for conditions that can be treated outside hospitals and have lower death rates, researchers find.