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November 3, 2009

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Keeping your wits about you

Memory and cognitive function decline with age, but we can stay sharper longer: keep the brain working and learning. TCM suggests strengthening kidneys at early signs of forgetfulness. Zhang Qian recalls.

Age-related cognitive decline is one of the most disturbing aspects of aging, associated with declining memory, learning, use of language and concentration.

Senile dementia (meaning deprived of the mind) is extreme and distinct from normal aging and is caused by deterioration of brain cells. It refers to a cluster of symptoms that seriously interferes with everyday life.

Everyone's mind ages differently and reflects the health of their body and their intellectual activity. Use it or lose it applies to mind as well as muscle.

Alzheimer's disease is also caused by brain cell deterioration that is not part of normal aging; it is the major cause of senile dementia.

Older people with occasional losses of memory and forgetfulness do not have senile dementia.

People over 60 who remember childhood experiences but cannot remember what they ate for breakfast are experiencing memory loss and cognitive decline. It may not be serious, or it could deteriorate.

Seeing a doctor early is important for early treatment.

Traditional Chinese medicine, which generally does not tap into modern gerontology, recommends reinforcing kidney (bladder and reproductive system) energy and keeping the brain stimulated.

Modern research shows that those who are highly educated have many more neural pathways and connections in the brain and are less susceptible to cognitive decline, or at least can better compensate for natural losses because they have extra "gray matter."

In Shanghai the rate of senile dementia has increased to 9.9 percent from 5 percent from 20 years ago, according to research conducted by the Mental Health Center of Shanghai Center for Disease Control and Prevention early this year.

There are more than 2 million people above 65 in Shanghai, including an estimated 190,000 senile dementia patients, statistics show.

Typical symptoms

"Senile dementia is increasingly common in cities with aging populations like Shanghai," says Dr Gu Yun, chief of the Gerontology Department of Longhua Hospital attached to Shanghai University of TCM.

"Poor memory and sharply decreased cognitive capacity are typical symptoms of senile dementia, which may eventually result in poor self-care ability and communication skills and make life difficult."

This serious loss of cognitive function usually occurs in people over 60 years, and the rate doubles among those who are 65, says Dr Gu.

He estimates there are more than 5 million patients with senile dementia in China.

The onset is characterized by persistent memory loss, loss of communication and social skills, loss of ability to tell time, identify their location, take care of themselves and mood swings or depression.

Dr Gu says more than 45 percent of senile dementia is caused by inevitable decline in brain function with age; 45 percent is caused insufficient blood circulating in the brain. It also be caused by viral infections, metal poisoning, metabolism disorders and other problems.

Energy boost

Deficient energy due to aging is a major cause of cognitive decline.

Deficient kidney energy can lead directly to insufficient nourishment of the brain and cause problems like decreasing memory and intelligence. Patients may also suffer phlegm and blood stasis that blocks energy channels as well as imbalanced energy in other organs. Therefore, the major strategy is reinforcing the kidneys while dissolving phlegm and activating blood circulation.

Regulating and balancing energy in other organs also helps. Herbs like gou qi (wolfberry), fu ling (tuckahoe), nu zhen zi (glossy privet fruit) and angelica are often prescribed. Foods like yam, loach, pyster, sesame, walnuts and other nuts recommended to reinforce kidney and delay onset of memory loss of prevent further deterioration.

Early diagnosis is important.

"There is no cure for senile dementia either in Western medicine or TCM so far, but early treatment can effectively delay the process," says Dr Gu, "Treatment is less effective in middle or late states of cognitive decline."

"You have to keep it working so that your brain won't rust," she says. She suggests studying something new, such as painting, music or reading. Western experts suggest learning a new computer system or language and playing puzzle games.

Smoking and alcohol can damage blood vessels in the brain and cause more damage. Cortisol, the adrenal hormone that mediates stress, is toxic to neurons, so try to reduce stress and get enough rest. Dietary therapy to keep you sharp Herbal tea

Ingredients: Mai dong (dwarf lilyturf root) (15g), gou qi (wolfberry) (10g), wu wei zi (shizandra berry)

Preparation: Make tea with hot water, drink often.

Benefits: Reinforces energy, strengthens kidneys, nourishes lungs and soothes nerves. It is used to treat decreasing memory and sleeplessness.

Peanuts and pig's feet soup

Ingredients: Peanuts (100g), pig's foot (1)

Preparation: Wash, make soup, season, eat once daily.

Benefits: Reinforces energy.

Loach fish and egg

Ingredients: Loach (250g), eggs (3)

Preparation: Crack eggs, mix. Dip the loach in mixture and cook in a steamer. Eat once a day.

Benefits: Reinforces kidney energy, stomach.

Walnut, sesame and lotus seeds congee

Ingredients: Walnuts (10g), sesames (10g), lotus seeds (10g), rice (50g)

Preparation: Cook congee with all ingredients. Eat once a day.

Benefits: Reinforces kidney energy. Walnuts are said to be good for the brain because the crinkled surface resembles the folds in the brain's surface. In TCM things that look like other things are supposed to be food for you.


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