Golf and Alzheimer''s Disease
|Photograph courtesy of Silverado Senior Living
The mind is an amazing thing. Even when tiny neurons get tangled and damaged, making it difficult to remember or perform certain activities, some areas of the brain remain intact. Last month in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), there was an interesting article on golf and Alzheimer's disease. Staff at a long-term care facility in California noticed that golf was an excellent way to get a few of their residents with moderate to severe Alzheimer's out of their world of isolation and darkness and into an ambience of peace and serenity.
The Silverado long-term care facility in Belmont, California transports some of its residents with Alzheimer's to a nearby golf course where they go through a series of skills developed by former pro golfer Gerry Benton. For people who played the game in their earlier years, there is a part of the brain that has the unique capacity to retain this information, and when the person returns to a similar setting, interesting things can happen.
A few researchers who were interviewed for the WSJ article commented that golf is such an enjoyable game to so many people that even when significant memory is lost in the later stages of Alzheimer's, the ability to remember playing golf is not. Dr. Bert Hayslip, a researcher from the University of North Texas, noted that there is something about the game of golf that 'imprints itself on people's minds.' This is pretty amazing when you consider that some of these same individuals can no longer remember what day it is or where they live, but are able to keep score, hold a golf club, or make a 15-foot putt.
In the regions affected by Alzheimer's disease, nerve cells or neurons degenerate, causing them to lose their connections of synapses with other neurons. The disorder begins in the entorhinal cortex of the brain, resulting in one of the hallmark signs of the disorder -- loss of the sense of direction. This gradual memory loss then moves to the hippocampus, which is an important structure in memory formation. As the hippocampal neurons degenerate, short-term memory falters. It then gradually spreads to other regions of the brain, particularly the cerebral cortex, which is involved in functions such as language and reason.
|Photograph courtesy of Steve LaBadessa for The Wall Street Journal
The WSJ article goes on to describe how memory works and cites Dr. John Daly (no, not the golfer) from the University of California at San Diego who noted that there are two types of memory - explicit and implicit. Dr. Daly explained that explicit memory items are stored in the cerebral cortex and include such things as what you ate for breakfast or watched on TV. Implicit memory, however, is stored in other parts of the brain, such as the cerebellum, and includes motor skills like 'swinging a golf club or playing a musical instrument.' Implicit memory items are some of the last items that people lose in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's.
Before my father passed away from Alzheimer's several years ago, he grew up next to the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan where the New York Giants used to play baseball. His love for the game was never lost, even when he was in the later stages of the disease. When I used to visit him in New York, I would take a small ball with me and we would play 'catch.' He would position his fingers in an intricate way around the ball to show me how to throw a curve, sinker, or 'junk' ball. Occasionally, he would flip one over his shoulder to see if he could catch me off guard. It was one of the few activities that would put a smile on his face and one of the last things I remember doing with him that he thoroughly enjoyed before he passed away.
Alzheimer's disease is a chronic disorder that affects over 5 million Americans. As the Baby Boomers prepare for retirement in this next decade and beyond, the number will swell to 10 to 15 million. Golf and other sports are a great way to connect individuals with Alzheimer's to something that they will likely remember for most of their lives. Never underestimate the power of a golf swing to bring a former player with Alzheimer's out of the shadows of darkness and into the life that they so vividly remember - teeing up on the first green. As every family member who has a loved one with Alzheimer's knows, brief moments of happiness in the later stages of the disease are memories that will last forever.
Please send any questions or comments to Jim Rimmer, NCHPAD Director at firstname.lastname@example.org.