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The Brains of the Elderly

06/18/02 12:00AM By Ruth Page
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(Host) Baby Boomers may have to face up to some uncomfortable facts about changes that can occur in their brains after age 85, as commentator Ruth Page explains.

(Page) The baby boomer generation, born in the years just after World War II, are now in their 50s and early 60s. They seem to be worrying most about whether they'll have ample savings or pensions for a long, happy and busy retirement.

Maybe they better add another concern to that. Only recently have the "very old" been studied - persons 85 or older. Now that folks are living longer, many baby boomers expect to live to 85, 100, 110 and possibly more. America's health professionals better know what to expect about the oldsters' abilities.

The studies are a bit of a shock. Psychiatrists have interviewed the very old, who rarely report any mental problem except forgetfulness. Recently, Swedish doctors have talked with family members and close friends of the old, too. That's when they learned that 10% of a representative sample of 85-year olds had psychotic symptoms. By age 88, more of that group had developed degenerative brain disease than had their fellows.

Doctors here in the United States say our health care system is not prepared to deal with what is likely to be a large population of very old people who have psychiatric problems; they may be physically healthy, and not suffer from Alzheimer's disease. Some of the symptoms that turned up include hallucinations, such as hearing voices; a belief they were being controlled by someone else's thoughts; and a strong sense that they were being harassed, that there was a conspiracy against them. In quite a few of the cases, this information came only after being reported by third parties.

One of the things researchers want to do now, is try to determine how early in these folks' lives the changes in their brains began. That won't be easy, because such alterations may progress slowly; but if science can pinpoint the startup years, plans for patient care can be made. Eventually, perhaps science will find ways to either reverse or slow the process down. Needless to say it looks as if it will be many years before health professionals can do that.

The other need is for the elderly showing psychotic symptoms to have a psychiatric diagnosis; that hasn't occurred so far, as these changes had not been identified. The elderly themselves, (like myself!) blame a lot of changes they're aware of on sheer age. We're always saying to each other, "The old computer in my head is just too full to keep things straight," so we keep right on doing our best. We don't talk to our physicians about what seem not-so-serious changes in our mental lives.

At least from now on, perhaps other people who know us best will talk with our physicians when things begin to look a bit dicey. And our middle-aged offspring will be aware of their own future vulnerability. This is Ruth Page, who will be 85 in four years, sharing information with you that she took absolutely no pleasure in learning earlier this year.
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