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My Mom Died of Dementia  

Why no amount of puzzles could save her.

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Jodi Lipson and her mother
Courtesy Jodi Lipson
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When my mother felt her brain wasn’t as sharp as it used to be, I’d find crossword puzzles around her apartment, half finished. They didn’t help. She was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment and then, about two years later, dementia. A year later, gone. Atrophied brain, said her death certificate. But her love was as enormous as always. You should have seen her smile the last time I saw her, via FaceTime from a memory care unit at the very start of the pandemic quarantine. 

The magic of crosswords is just one of the myths that we really, really want to believe but end up being untrue, says Sanjay Gupta, M.D. You’ve seen him reporting on the coronavirus daily as CNN chief medical correspondent. Now, he’s written AARP’s new Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age. Here is the puzzle myth and other popular beliefs that he debunks. 

Myth: A crossword a day keeps the dementia doctor away. 

Fact: Oh, I wish. Doing crossword puzzles won’t keep your brain sharp in any general sense, Gupta says, since crossword puzzles flex only the part of your brain involved in finding words (also called fluency). Plus, if you’re a buff, they’re just plain fun. 

Myth: There’s a pill for that. 

Fact: Tragically for my parents, there’s no pill to cure dementia (not yet, anyway — please put that on your wish list!). My mom and my dad, who five years ago died with mind-robbing Alzheimer’s, both took Aricept, often prescribed for dementia. These types of medications don’t slow the rate of cognitive decline, confirms Gupta, although they might help with symptoms like memory loss and confusion for anywhere from a few months to a year. As with many patients, my parents saw no improvement. Ditto those supplements? Yep. I found boxes of them stashed in Dad’s study after he died. My heart just broke — he, always so in control, must have been so scared! In fact, more than a quarter of adults in the United States age 50 and older take at least one supplement for brain-health reasons, Gupta reports. But the vast majority of people who buy them are throwing away their money. (The small percentage of people who are helped have detectable deficiencies that the supplement treats.) 

Myth: We’re all bound to lose our minds with age. 

Fact: Some cognitive skills do decline as you age, especially if you don’t employ strategies to pay closer attention and help you remember. But while you may have been quicker at picking up a new language or memorizing a list of random words when you were younger, Gupta says you’re more likely to be superior with vocabulary and a good judge of character when you’re older. You’d score higher on tests of social communication and diplomacy, such as how to settle an argument or deal with a conflict. The other good news about aging is that we tend to improve over time at controlling our own emotions (I’m still waiting), weathering stress (ditto) and finding meaning in our lives (well, one out of three ain’t bad). 

Gupta’s overriding message: Dementia is not a normal part of aging. Typical age-related changes in the brain are not the same as changes that are caused by disease. The former can be slowed down and the latter can be avoided. He offers clear guidance in Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age

Jodi Lipson is director of AARP Books. Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age, largely based on work of the Global Council on Brain Health convened by AARP, can be found wherever books are sold and at AARP.org/keepsharp. 

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