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SALT LAKE CITY -- Researchers have discovered the brain, as it passes middle age, actually gets better at intellectually recognizing the big picture: dementia is not always inevitable.
In fact, studies now document exercising the brain can strengthen brain cells and produce new pathways. But the possibilities are even more dramatic for those who are prone to Alzheimer's disease.
In Utah, 32,000 people have Alzheimer's, a 45 percent increase from 2000. -Alzheimer's Assoc.
"In this new world of awareness, even if we know we're going to develop this disease, we can delay its onset," says Nick Zullo, with the Utah chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.
At Highland Cove Senior Living Community, residents stand in line to use a new piece of software that was created based on 20 years of Alzheimer's research.
Hidden words, name and picture recognition, history, remembering sequences, math and more are all programmed to within the software to stimulate the brain. It's the kind of stimulation in a place the Alzheimer's Association calls a "Cognasium" -- or a gymnasium for the mind.
"You have to surprise yourself," Zullo says. "You have to surprise the brain and make it stop and think in new ways."
5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer's; a new person is diagnosed with the disease every 70 seconds. At this rate, by 2050, up to 16 million Americans will have Alzheimer's, and a new case will be diagnosed every 33 seconds. -Alzheimer's Assoc.
Jean Clark, who is a resident at Highland Cove, says, "I do it three to five times week, and I think it's helped."
Though the residents are in their 80s and 90s and still cognitively active, they continually force themselves to focus and think.
Charles Lwin, the active lifestyle coordinator for Highland Cove, says, "It has a somewhat addictive quality once they get stimulated with the information, and the information is new everyday."
It's new because new programming is wirelessly downloaded every night.
"Some of the questions are really hard. You have to concentrate. I like the math problems," says Highland Cove resident Florence Reinhardt.
Lwin says the software also encourages socialization.
"They find other people who are using it. They talk about what they saw that day," he says.
This kind of stimulation is unique but not alone.
Time: 9 a.m. to noon
Location:Fort Douglas Officers Club
150 S Fort Douglas Blvd (Bldg 649)
Salt Lake City
*Note: RSVP is required to attend this event. Please call 801-585-5442 to reserve your seat.
Visual imagery and smells, like a cooking class across the hall, will also trigger memory. Scrabble, rummy, a jigsaw puzzle -- anything to force the brain to process -- all these things are called "brain perks," and the brain loves them.
"Anything that challenges you to think a little bit," explains Highland Cove resident Ken Neel.
At an international scientific conference, researchers say they've discovered what appears to be an Alzheimer's signature where a future test might identify the marker long before signs of dementia appear.
Nutrition and medicines will play a role, but for many folks where genetics is not a factor, stimulating the brain at the Cognasium would be a preventive therapy that could change the trajectory of the disease.
The University of Utah is scheduling a special event this Thursday morning from 9 a.m. to noon. "Maintaining Your Brain - Brain Fitness for a Lifetime," as it's called, is free and open to anyone age 50 and over. See the box to the right for more information.