Exercising the Aging Brain
words by barbara hurley /
photograph by pete byron
ohn Heath, MD, trained in family medicine but discovered in geriatrics an “extraordinary breadth of opportunity” to interact with other disciplines. His research has focused on Alzheimer’s disease and dementia care, but his emphasis is on wellness, prevention, and cognitive improvement, all of which, he believes, affect behavioral issues.
“Every pharmaceutical company is studying Alzheimer’s because our population is aging,” he notes, “But their approach has been disease-specific interventions.” In contrast, Heath senses a “demographic imperative” — even though there are more options for cognitive and behavioral problems, elders want to be healthier. “There should be more emphasis on preventative measures, memory and lifestyle,” Heath maintains. “There is an obligation to study evidence-based wellness strategies.”
One of his studies did just that; it explored educational interventions that enhanced memory skills through positive psychotherapy. The emphasis was on physical fitness and brain exercise. The participants loved it; and even though the trial is no longer going on, they get together once a month to discuss topics important to them.
The Center for Healthy Aging at Parker Stonegate, an assisted living facility in Highland Park, is Heath’s geriatric clinical practice site and the base for support for many of the wellness research interventions. Parker has become a solid partner for geriatric scholarly and research activity. Heath finds the residents there very interested in the clinical research, very open and eager to improve their cognitive function.
Most trial participants are in their 70s, but the age is “creeping up” according to Heath. “We have healthy 82-year-olds,” he reports, “And we recently advocated for raising the age to 90 for potential participants in a new study.” He notes that participation in his clinical trials is sometimes a “desperate attempt” on the part of the caregivers to find something that will change the course of the disease. Yet he finds that older patients are often more altruistic, interested in helping others even when they realize the chances of personal benefit are slim to none.
One element in Alzheimer’s research that Heath underscores: The patient is surrounded by other people who do the “heavy lifting” during the trial — paperwork, special care, transportation and the like. He makes it clear that he is “grateful to all.”
He is thankful, too, for a top-notch study coordinator, Julie Coleman, RN, BSN, whom Heath describes as “paramount” to the operation of his clinical trials, “She makes sure every ‘i’ is dotted and every ‘t’ is crossed,” he explains. In addition, she interacts with the patients and keeps “a human face on research.” Coleman believes there are many benefits for those participating in trials. “I’m able to sit and listen to the needs of the patients and their caregivers with fewer time constraints,” she says, “And often we are able to identify problems earlier and provide case management that is not available in a regular doctor’s office visit.”
Heath and Coleman are both avid proponents of inter-campus cooperation within the research field. “Having good will among faculty across campuses and identifying mutual areas of interest with differing perspectives,” Heath maintains, “can only help UMDNJ expand its clinical trials capacity.”