We all know people who drink, smoke, and generally flout the rules of good health, yet stay vigorous and alert into extreme old age. On the other hand, some people who seem to do everything right are stricken by diseases. Alzheimer’s disease is a case in point. Accumulating evidence suggests that people who stay cognitively active and maintain “brain health” can greatly reduce their risk for the disease. Our profile in this issue focuses on Cynthia Green, who has developed a “memory fitness” training program, and articles in previous issues have stressed other tips and techniques for keeping the brain healthy. Yet some people who are physically fit and cognitively active nevertheless fall victim to Alzheimer’s. Why?
Genes form part of the answer. To date, several genetic markers have been identified, and individuals who inherit these genes are at higher risk to develop Alzheimer’s than individuals who do not. This is part of the reason why Alzheimer’s sometimes runs in families. Our cover story reviews what’s known about the relationship between genes and Alzheimer’s, and offers some advice about who might benefit from genetic testing. It’s important to remember that genes aren’t destiny; even people who do carry the risk-conferring genes may still be able delay or prevent the disease by fighting to maintain brain health.
Finally, whether we’re worried about Alzheimer’s or just dealing with those senior moments when we misplace the car keys, it might seem that life would be easier if we could make our memories more powerful and effective than they are. It may be surprising to learn that overly powerful memories can be problematic too. Our story, Unforgettable, explores post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In PTSD, the brain creates a too-vivid memory of a traumatic event — one that is so strong, and so readily accessible, that it repeatedly floods into conscious awareness in the form of painful and upsetting “flashbacks.” Researchers are now exploring ways to prevent PTSD with medications that can turn down the volume on the emotional content of traumatic memories. For people at risk of developing PTSD, such experimental treatments may prove liberating. For the rest of us, PTSD is a reminder that, in memory as in other aspects of life, too much of a good thing can be bad.
Copyright © 2005 Memory Loss and the Brain