In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the McGill Centre for Studies in Aging and the 10th anniversary of the Program in Dementia with Psychiatric Comorbidity (PDPC) at the Douglas Institute, a one-day symposium was offered to the general public on October 1st, 2010. This symposium was called “Healthy Aging, Healthy Mind: How to preserve your Cognition and Memory”. It featured both morning lectures and afternoon workshops in smaller groups.

The 210-seat Douglas Hall auditorium was sold out – people who dropped in last minute were sitting on the stairs. The event attracted people of all ages, including some McGill students. One participant, Rose, said that she received insight into how best to address the symptoms her husband, who had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, was manifesting. “I was told I have to make him feel involved in the decision-making of the therapy, even though he doesn’t understand his illness”.

Although many participants were from families affected by an aging-related illness, the symposium focused more on aging health rather than illness. The Douglas’ own Jens Pruessner spoke about what people can do to delay or reverse cognitive losses that are part of the aging process, while McGill Professor Patricia McKinley spoke about the importance of exercise for reverting age-related muscle loss.

It is often forgotten that the brain is also a muscle that atrophies as we grow older. However, it can be retrained and its memory, which also declines, can be re-strengthened. This process is based on the brain’s plasticity – the brain reorganizes itself to form new connections between brain cells. In other words, it compensates for damage by rerouting information.

This is exactly what doctors and nurses do at the Douglas Institute’s Moe Levin Center. The Moe Levin Center provides specialized care to patients suffering from cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease. It houses the Memory Clinic, where the cognitive retraining program teaches patients learning strategies to enhance memory. These include computerized exercises, and Tai Chi.

In the afternoon, a bilingual workshop about cognitive retraining was given by nurse practitioner Céline Brunelle, Occupational Therapist Nancy Grenier, and recreational therapist Lisa O’Reilly, all of whom work at the Moe Levin Center. From a software called Brainversity, the participants were shown some sample memory stimulation exercises. By the end of the simulation, the game had become quite challenging as it was designed to be used even by people who are not suffering from cognitive disorder, but who simply want to improve their memory.

Tai chi is used in the clinic because it forces patients to learn a series of movements by repeating them. Like other forms of exercise, it reduces stress and improves concentration. Also used for this purpose is the Nintendo Wii station, and more specifically a step class or bowling game from Wii Fit. A 3-minute step class was given to the workshop audience (featured in the photo), after which many participants said they were rejuvenated and less fatigued, even though it was the last workshop of a very stimulating and intense day.

The cognitive retraining program is part of a research study made possible by your kind gift. Your donation helps us invest in healthy minds.