Director of UAMS Institute on Aging Says Dementia Can be Prevented
By BECKY GILLETTE
Jeanne Y. Wei, MD, PhD, is a prodigious researcher whose work has provided important insight into the most common reason for hospitalization in the U.S.: heart failure. In her role as executive director of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Donald W. Reynolds Department of Geriatrics, she acts as a geriatric medicine consultant to healthcare providers throughout the state.
“Like many other states, there is a shortage of geriatricians in Arkansas,” said Wei, who is also director of the UAMS Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging. “Most top-ranked geriatric programs around the nation have found that the best way to use our expertise is to provide consultation. We can be contacted if any provider wishes to receive advice about the nuances of taking care of elderly patients, particularly those with chronic conditions and/or complications.”
Wei refers to the numerous medicines that are available to treat health problems as “an embarrassment of riches.” However, these medicines can interact with each other in ways that may be harmful.
Wei’s research group was among the first to create animal models of the aging heart that closely replicate what happens in the hearts of aging humans. Now animal models are being used to better understand the molecular mechanisms of heart failure and the best ways to intervene.
Wei has authored a geriatrics textbook widely used in the U.S. and the U.K. And she has also written a book targeted to the general public called AGING WELL: The Complete Guide to Physical and Emotional Health. That is the only book that ever received an endorsement by advice columnist Ann Landers.
When asked if we are seeing any promise for delaying or preventing dementia, Wei’s answer is “absolutely yes. One half to two-thirds of dementia can be delayed or is preventable. It is fantastic. Research publications are coming out to show that yes, indeed, if you do the right things, you can delay and possibly prevent the onset of dementia.”
She said fresh vegetables are your best friend. Eat less meat and eat more vegetables, limit alcohol intake, and don’t forget the importance of exercise. Recent research found that walking regularly, especially intermittently walking fast, can reduce dementia risk by up to 50 percent. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/experts-say-walk-far-and-walk-quickly-to-reduce-your-risk-of-dementia. Other forms of exercise can also provide similar benefits.
The sport that provides the most additional years to life is tennis. But pickleball, the fastest growing sport in the U.S. and one that seniors are adopting in droves, likely has similar benefits.
“Pickleball is like tennis in that you need good hand-eye coordination, you have to think fast and move fast, and it keeps you up on all the reflexes,” Wei said. “When you cross the midline of your body, that enhances cognition. For example, if you lean to the right and cross over to the left to hit the ball, you are crossing the midline and have done well. Exercise creates new neural pathways and new synapses and stimulates new small blood vessel (capillary) formation. In fact, weight training, resistance training and anything else you do that is physical is helpful. Do the best you can and feel happy that whatever you can do is good.”
She said the social element that can be involved in sports can be equally or even more important than exercise alone. Recent research has shown that to keep one’s brain volume, people need social support. Wei believes many elders who were isolated during the pandemic likely suffered severely, or even gave up, from lack of social contact—their suffering was not entirely due to COVID alone. She said everyone suffered, but the elderly bore the brunt of the social isolation.
“It is very important to have at least one person who listens to you with empathy. I can’t emphasize that enough,” Wei said. “If no one is there to listen to you with empathy or if someone doesn’t listen to you with full attention, that doesn’t help as much. If someone listens to you intently, you are golden. It is even more important than pickleball.”
Another critical recommendation is to get proper sleep.
“Sleep is more important than food or medicine,” Wei said. “And don’t listen to all those commercials on TV about how to preserve memory. There are currently more than 150 lawsuits against some of these companies, and some have already been found guilty of false advertising and misleading people. Some of these drugs have resulted in people sustaining strokes, heart attacks and seizures. The take-home message here is please don’t take those drugs without talking to your doctor.”
There is one natural product that has good research supporting its use to prevent dementia, curcumin.
“Curcumin is an antioxidant and helps preserve cellular function,” Wei said. “It gets cells working at the top level of functioning. It really does work. It is fantastic.”
Wei likes to read and learn new things. She follows her own advice by engaging in intermittent fast walking and is close to her two grown sons and their families. Her oldest son, Michael Silverman, is a cardiologist at Mass General Hosp in Boston and his wife, Polina Tesylar, is a psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. They have two daughters. Wei’s younger son, David Silverman, and his wife, Nimi Katragadda, both have MBAs from Harvard. They live in Manhattan where he is working for a small hedge fund company and she is working for a venture capital startup company. The couple has a daughter who is a year old.