Black se­niors stroll down mem­ory lane aim­ing to stay sharp

The Hamilton Spectator - - HEALTH - LAURAN NEERGAARD

Sharon Steen dons her ten­nis shoes and, with two fel­low se­niors, walks streets that in her youth were a vi­brant cen­tre of Port­land, Ore­gon’s African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity. Wasn’t this the cor­ner where an NAACP march be­gan in 1963? Look, the record store is now a fancy high­rise.

It’s more than a stroll down mem­ory lane. Steen en­rolled in a small but unique study to see if jog­ging mem­o­ries where they were made can help older African-Amer­i­cans stay men­tally sharp and slow early mem­ory loss.

“What we find when we walk is that there are a lot of things we haven’t had to re­mem­ber, and that we can’t re­mem­ber. And then as we walk and talk, the mem­o­ries pop up and it’s re­as­sur­ing that they’re still there,” Steen said.

It’s part of a new and grow­ing ef­fort to un­ravel trou­bling dis­par­i­ties: Why do black se­niors ap­pear twice as likely as whites — and His­pan­ics 1½ times — to de­velop Alzheimer’s and other de­men­tias?

“A lot of our wis­dom and sto­ries about what com­mu­nity means come from our el­ders,” said Raina Croff, an as­sis­tant neu­rol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Ore­gon Health & Science Univer­sity. She leads the SHARP study — it stands for Shar­ing His­tory through Ac­tive Rem­i­nis­cence and Photo-Imagery.

Three times a week, 21 se­niors gather in groups of three and rem­i­nisce dur­ing mile-long walks through streets once filled with black-owned homes and busi­nesses, ar­eas that in the last 20 years have be­come ma­jor­ity white. Along the way, “mem­ory mark­ers” — signs or his­toric pho­tos — prompt “do you re­mem­ber” con­ver­sa­tions about peo­ple, events or long-gone land­marks.

Walk­ing is healthy, and be­ing so­cial in­creas­ingly is thought crit­i­cal for se­niors’ brain health. Adding rem­i­nis­cence is novel, al­though some pre­vi­ous re­search found sim­ply look­ing through old fam­ily pho­tos some­times sparks mem­o­ries in de­men­tia pa­tients. Some of the SHARP study par­tic­i­pants, like Steen, are cog­ni­tively nor­mal for their age; oth­ers have early mem­ory prob­lems or what’s called mild cog­ni­tive im­pair­ment. Tests of brain func­tion be­fore and af­ter the six-month pro­gram will show if it makes a dif­fer­ence.

It’s an in­no­va­tive way to test what’s essen­tially ex­er­cis­ing mem­ory “when you still have a lot of brain left,” said Maria Car­rillo, chief science of­fi­cer at the Alzheimer’s As­so­ci­a­tion, which is fund­ing the SHARP study.

Croff’s the­ory :“There’ s some­thing dif­fer­ent that hap­pens as you walk through the space and talk about mem­o­ries.”

It’s not clear why African-Amer­i­cans face ex­tra risk of de­men­tia. Higher rates of chronic health con­di­tions such as high blood pres­sure and di­a­betes, known to be toxic to the brain, don’t fully ex­plain the dis­par­ity.

Stud­ies pre­sented at the Alzheimer’s As­so­ci­a­tion In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence last week show a grow­ing in­ter­est in the role of so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal in­flu­ences, from liv­ing in dis­ad­van­taged neigh­bour­hoods to so­cioe­co­nomic dis­par­i­ties in early child­hood.

One par­tic­u­larly strik­ing study sug­gests highly stress­ful ex­pe­ri­ences — the death of a child, abuse or se­vere ill­ness, be­ing fired or di­vorced — can age the brain be­fore its time. Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin Madi­son re­searchers tested cog­ni­tive func­tions that de­cline with age in still healthy vol­un­teers in their 50s and 60s. Each par­tic­u­larly trau­matic event over a life­time added the equiv­a­lent of 1½ years of age-re­lated de­cline — even more, four years, for African-Amer­i­cans, who ex­pe­ri­enced dis­pro­por­tion­ately more stres­sors.

Croff de­lib­er­ately chose “cul­tur­ally cel­e­bra­tory” his­tor­i­cal pho­tos. Dur­ing one re­cent walk, the se­niors were thrilled to rec­og­nize some faces in a photo of a 1961 debu­tante ball. In pho­tos of that 1963 NAACP march, par­tic­i­pants have rec­og­nized pas­tors and switched the con­ver­sa­tion to the vi­tal­ity of church life.

Croff, an an­thro­pol­o­gist by train­ing, said some par­tic­i­pants see the study as so­cial ac­tivism.

“There is some­thing very pow­er­ful about say­ing, ‘I’m still here, I’m still part of this com­mu­nity and you’re go­ing to see me.”


A study at Ore­gon Health & Science Univer­sity uses old com­mu­nity pho­tos as prompts to help test whether rem­i­nis­cence can help slow early mem­ory loss in African-Amer­i­can se­niors.

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