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Fighting Alzheimer’s with activity

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An estimated 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, which involves memory loss and other intellectual deficits. More is unknown than known of the mysterious illness, but last month, researchers at New York University came one step closer to figuring out its origins.

The researchers discovered how the gene implicated in early-onset Alzheimer’s (diagnosed before age 65), functions—or fails to function. Due to a mutation, the gene doesn’t do its job, which involves cleaning “debris” that collects around the brain.

The journal Cell published the finding online. And researchers say this latest development could eventually lead to treatments. In the meantime, however, Weiss Memorial Hospital has programs in place to help seniors fend off Alzheimer’s and adjust to aging.

“One of the points that’s been made over the years is seniors who stay active and socialize are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s,” said Caren Perlmuter, vice president of development and senior services at Weiss. “This is an opportunity for seniors to socialize.”

With the help of a grassroots, in-house committee created by Dr. Deirdre Tannen and Dr. Monica Finocchiaro, Perlmuter led the WISE Senior Center in 2007 when she came to Weiss to direct the Geriatric Service Line. “I needed a clubhouse for seniors to gather and to rest,” she said.

Located on the first floor of the hospital, the center has tables and chairs, television, coffee, tea and a full-time staff member to answer questions.

“If (seniors) get here too early or are waiting for a ride, we don’t want them sitting in the hallways. They should have a comfortable place to be,” Perlmuter said.

The center also coordinates programming inside and out of the hospital. A walking group meets Fridays, a card and board game group plays weekly, exercise and yoga classes take place nearby, and monthly “Lunch and Learns” feature a physician speaking on a health topic pertinent to seniors over lunch.

The game group also offers seniors a chance to socialize. Every Friday for the past few months, Joseph Kane, 63, has spent his afternoons in the Senior Center playing card and board games with Bruce Wagner, 72.

Both men saw fliers for the program at another senior center. They say that their lives in no way revolve around these Friday sessions, and yet here they are—and here they have been every week since the program’s inception.

Other players have come and gone, Kane said. “You know how some folks are. They get a quick hand in, a few laughs, and they run off.”

As he shuffled one deck, Wagner pulled out another, which he had created from multi-colored index cards. Wagner made the game to help keep his mind active, the same reason he takes the bus to Weiss every Friday afternoon.

“It’s definitely a good form of social support,” said senior center intern Angela Katrichis. “It’s something to look forward to, a kind of informal support group.”

Currently, more than 1,000 seniors are enrolled in the WISE Senior Center program, though Perlmuter estimates a core group between 200 and 300 regulars. “We engage them with knowledge they haven’t had before. They stay actively involved in learning new things,” Perlmuter said.

And at a time when researchers still have a great deal more to learn about the diseases that plague us as we age, the Senior Center continues to offer respite as well as opportunities to socialize and learn.

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