Baton Rouge resident Beverly Smiley doesn't meet a stranger easily. She immediately introduces herself to anyone new, and will chat about her children now located in Texas and Hawaii.
The 70-year-old is bright and energetic, and the only sign of taking it easy in her retirement is the fact that she now carries a smaller purse. She is the picture of aging gracefully and healthily. Unfortunately, that was not the case for her mother and aunt.
"The worst day of my life was the day that I went in and I knew that my mother didn't recognize me," recalled Smiley who was an only child. "That, to me, was the most heart wrenching thing I've ever experienced. That's why it's so important to me."
Smiley's mother and aunt were both ravaged by dementia in their later years. Watching two loved ones slowly fade away is the reason Smiley says she did not hesitate to volunteer for studies at the Institute for Dementia Research and Prevention at Pennington Biomedical Research Center when it began five years ago.
"It's just so important. To have a study like this that follows people as they age to me it's just the most important thing I can do. It's the best contribution I can make," said Smiley.
The contributions of Smiley and two thousand other volunteers over the years have already given researchers exciting results, and put local researchers at the forefront of Alzheimer and dementia study.
"We're able to see each year, what are those things associated with people who remain stable, those people who have a decline but are still cognitively intact or those people who develop dementia," said the IDRP Director Dr. Jeffrey Keller.
One of those key differences that researchers discovered is exercise: 480 steps a day to be exact. A study that monitored a volunteers daily activity through a high tech activity monitor revealed that just five minutes of vigorous walking each day made a huge difference in the mental function of patients.
"This is really important because what it means is that it could be those 480 steps are part of what causes people to develop a mild cognitive impairment and then go on to develop dementia. So, we will very soon be studying that," said Keller.
The director imagines that soon smart phones will be used to alert people if they haven't gotten their 480 steps in.
That's not all they've discovered. More and more researchers here are seeing a strong link between the risks for heart disease and dementia.
"Heart health is brain health," said Keller.
Like so many of the studies at Pennington, Keller says the IDRP is looking closely at how different diseases and conditions are linked, and how physical health and mental health go hand in hand. He noted that their world renowned research is changing the way scientists look at Alzheimer's disease.
However, in order to for researchers to make more advances in the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer's and dementia, the IDRP needs more volunteers. The institute is asking that anyone over the age of 60 sign up for the study that takes only one hour a year to complete.
There are several different studies or clinical trials that volunteers can take part in. Keller says that the benefit for volunteers is twofold. Volunteers receive free health screenings, and also help in the overall fight against dementia.
"Alzheimers is the number five killer of all diseases in the United States. It is currently the only one in the top ten that has no treatment or disease modifying medication," said Keller. "We have to conduct trials so we can find a cure for this disorder."
"Anything that can be done to at least find a cure or prevention or at least slow it down, is so worthwhile," agreed Smiley who has participated in multiple studies.
To volunteer or get more information on the study, call 225-763-2973 or 1-877-276-8306.
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