By Mark Baard, July 15, 2002 PST
You're never too old to start blogging -- and to stave off dementia.
Seniors in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, with mild to moderate memory loss, are writing Web logs to help them make sense of their daily lives. And the activity, they say, is slowing the onset of their symptoms.
"Many people, once they're diagnosed with AD, simply give up on life," said Alice Young, a 75-year-old former psychotherapist who divides her time each year between Florida and Minnesota. "And those are the people who go down more quickly."
But Young and others with AD are blogging to keep their spirits high and their minds sharp.
In her journal, Young mixes frank descriptions of her illness with encouraging words and prayers.
"Concentration is coming harder now," reads one entry from November 2000. "I am constantly misplacing/losing things. I go to the Dr. and I am going to ask for another test to see how much I have lost."
More than one and a half years later, on June 17, 2002, Young has become more philosophical about her AD: "Time is getting shorter for me, and I realize it, so I'm 'going for the gusto' as much as I can," she wrote.
Young said she and others with AD keep journals to "exercise the cognitive powers we have as much as possible."
"But I also think it's important to be realistic about AD," Young said.
AD has no known cure, and there is no proof that blogging, or any other form of cognitive exercise, can stem its progress. But AD bloggers say their journals have greatly improved their quality of life, by helping them to recall tasks completed and milestones passed.
"My journal tells me when I've paid the bills, bathed the dogs and fed my flowers -- or when my flowers have bloomed," said Mary Lockhart, 62, an AD patient from Oklahoma City.
Both Young and Lockhart also include pictures of their family and friends on their websites.
Lockhart addresses many of her journal entries to the friends she's made online, hosting live chats for the Dementia Advocacy and Support Network (DASN).
Young and Lockhart both call DASN their "lifeline" for emotional support and information about new medicines, which they hear about from memory-loss sufferers in chat rooms and via e-mail.
Psychologists say the emotional support alone helps AD patients improve their cognitive functioning.
"People who have AD, but have lower levels of depression and anxiety, have better day-to-day functioning with things like using the telephone, shopping and housekeeping," said Rebecca Logsdon, PhD, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the University of Washington's Department of Psychosocial and Community Health.
Logsdon said Web logs and e-mail can be an excellent way for people with AD to maintain family and social contacts, and to counter the depression that often accompanies their illness.
"We just don't know if the Internet directly impacts brain functioning," Logsdon said. "But even if it doesn't, it may slow down the debilitating consequences of the disease."
Young people may also benefit from blogging: Researchers, like those behind the University of Kentucky's nun study, have already found a connection between intellectually active lifestyles and a reduced risk of developing AD.
AD can seem inevitable with old age, however. Fifty percent of people over 85 will contract the disease.
But a lifelong regimen of cognitive exercise, including journaling, may help delay AD's onset by up to 10 years -- long enough for many individuals to outlive it.
Even retirees can't afford to slack off if they hope to beat AD, UW's Logsdon said.
"Keeping journals or engaging in other intellectual activity is good at any age," Logsdon said. "But it is particularly important to stay intellectually active as we get older, retire from demanding jobs and have fewer family obligations."
AD bloggers Alice Young and Mary Lockhart, meanwhile, are keeping busy by storing their memories online and using the Web to reach out to others with memory loss.
"I want people to know we're not just a bunch of lost souls out here," Young said. "We're learning to use the Web to keep on top of things."