These Folks are Getting Creative with Childhood Craft Supplies to Bulk Up Their Brains

By Orange County Register

May 18, 2018

The synapses in LD Malatka’s brain fire like a Fourth of July fireworks celebration as he sketches reverse images of designs in front of him.

It’s not an easy task, but for Malatka it may be more difficult than for most. Now 81, he recently took a test for Alzheimer’s at the Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute at Hoag and scored below the norm.

“I flunked,” he somberly and courageously shares.

But there is no flunking in brain tests. There is only possibility for improvement.

Malataka, whose mother suffered from the disease, isn’t just taking the test and trying something new, such as reverse drawings, for himself. He’s also doing it to encourage his son and daughter to test and, if recommended, be sure they tackle new things.

What may be surprising is that both his adult children are barely older than 45.

Recent discoveries, however, have found that if caught early enough – and you tackle new things to keeping your brain firing like it’s Independence Day – Alzheimer’s can be delayed by as much as 30 years.

The key is starting early, and 45 years of age is the sweet spot to start being tested.

For many people, simple changes in health and learning can mean cheating Alzheimer’s as long as they live.

Going back to move ahead

It is Thursday night at the neurosciences institute in Newport Beach. Nearly 100 people gather to learn the latest in Alzheimer’s research and how to keep their brains as sharp as possible, for as long as possible.

Representatives from the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity flow past a series of tables loaded with childhood crafty tools such as clay, yarn, cardboard tubes, glue, tape, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks.

But the center named for the cartoonist who came up with such characters as Wile E. Coyote, Elmer Fudd and Road Runner, isn’t about teaching the crowd how to follow Jones’ path.

They are all about stimulating the gray matter between our ears.

“Creativity,” explains Denise Dion-Scoyni, lead teaching artist at the center, “is the gymnasium for the brain.”

Eight adults sit at a round table throwing out ideas on what to create. The idea is to step out of comfort zones and make something with objects they haven’t used for decades, perhaps ever.

Call it step one in building brains.

“A modern house,” one man suggests. “A castle,” offers another. I’m a giraffe guy and I toss out the idea. The group agrees making a giraffe would be creative – and would test our talents.

Trissa Kearns of Lake Forest picks up four popsicle sticks, a short cardboard tube and a wade of tape. She braids yarn into a tale. Q-tips transform into furry giraffe horns. Soon, a baby giraffe wobbles on the table.

At the same time, the rest of the group creates a mommy giraffe, albeit a rather unusual mommy giraffe.

Still, the imagination and agility of the group is astonishing. I laugh, “I haven’t done this since I was 5.”

Brain power

Before play time, Dr. William Shankle, director of the Memory and Cognitive Disorders Program at the Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute, explains the mysteries of building brain muscle.

It’s an odd phrase, but one I often heard from my father while growing up. A man ahead of his time, Dad was a big believer that, ugh, studying actually made your brain stronger.

Turns out, Dad was right.

Standing before a giant screen with a brain cutaway, Shankle reports that decline in cognition begins as early as age 45.

But he adds there’s good news, really good news.

“Wisdom increases as we get older,” he states in down-to-earth terms, “so long as we keep our marbles.”

For Shankle, wisdom embodies social cooperation, emotional stability, empathy, tolerance, pragmatism, social intelligence.

In short, having wisdom means being a fully formed human.

But to become a wise guy, new experiences are critical. They include attending plays, concerts, learning to dance, playing the piano, trying new sports.

Shankle – and I am not making this up – also says reading newspapers builds brain power.

“It’s literally,” says the brain expert, “exercising the brain.”

The doctor offers evidence. Along with making the study of dementia his life’s work, Shankle spent three years examining a Mayo Clinic brain study. Next, he created mathematical models to reach conclusions. He also works with patients.

“The notion that dementia is inevitable,” the doctor declares, “is wrong.”

Shankle shows a brain scan. Certain areas glow when taking on new challenges.

“We learn something new, and the brain grows like a muscle producing a new synapse,” the scientist points out. “It looks like exercising muscles.

“It’s like going to Muscle Beach.”

Getting tested

If you, um, remember, I wrote a column a year ago about taking a $45 test given by Celine Keeble, education and program coordinator for the Orange County Vital Brain Aging Program at Hoag.

Since the program began eight years ago, nearly 5,000 local residents have had assessments. More than 25 percent were referred to their primary care physician.

One-fourth were under 65 years old, 38 percent were 65 to 74, 32 percent were 75 to 84 and the remainder were older.

Only a small minority were close to 45, the age when most experts advise to start testing.

Part of the reason for testing is so you have a baseline. If the following year’s result is lower, adjustments in behavior, diet and medicine can be made.

Ways to protect memory include managing medical conditions, exercising at least three days a week for 30 minutes, maintaining a healthy weight, getting seven to eight hours sleep, having low cholesterol, challenging your mind.

I tested a year ago and again Thursday morning. I was shocked to discover my score climbed 10 percent, a good thing.

A year ago, I was depressed and stressed over family matters. Those issues have since resolved themselves. Keeble suspects the changes are the reasons for improvement.

Malatka, a widower, is kind enough to share his results in the hope it will inspire others to take the Hoag-subsidized test.

For more on getting the test done: OCBrain.org. Parking is free.

“I was concerned about my memory,” explains Malatka, a Trabuco Canyon resident. “It seemed like I was forgetting more and more stuff all the time.”

So far, he’s had one test and plans to take another next year. In between, he’s taking a course on the stock market.

Boom!

Still, this self-styled, jack-of-all-trades, with a background as diverse as real estate agent, machinist and jewelry maker, admits the course, “twists my head.”

But in his brain, it’s the Fourth of July.

To view the original Orange County Register article, please click here.