Dr. John DenBoer came home on a mission.
DenBoer, a Waukesha native, has developed a system of cognitive exercises that help prevent or slow the rate of dementia. That system was the subject of his presentation at Avalon Square Senior Living home in downtown Waukesha on Friday, June 24.
The Avalon is a special place for DenBoer, whose grandmother lived there for the last 20 years of her life and where he spent a lot of time as a young boy. He began his presentation with a dedication to her.
'In a lot of different ways we're celebrating her today,' he said during the presentation. 'She was a really special figure in my life.'
DenBoer's efforts include pointing out what doesn't work in the fight against dementia.
'There's this myth that occurs right now in our field that people that are older can keep their brain sharp by doing brain puzzles, Sudoku, playing bridge,' DenBoer said. 'That's not true.'
While those types of brain exercises are good for keeping the brain active, people with symptoms of dementia need to engage in new and novel exercises that are cognitively rigorous and that they haven't done before.
'It triggers glutamate, an extenuatory neurotransmitter, that prevents the brain from shrinking at an accelerated rate,' DenBoer said. 'New and novel is essential.'
DenBoer, a graduate of Waukesha South High School and Carroll University, is a clinical neuropsychologist. He completed his internship training at the VA Boston Healthcare System (Boston University School of Medicine/Harvard University) and received his postdoctoral training at Barrow Neurological Institute.
He developed his approach, dubbed the Smart Training Program, over the past 10 to 15 years of research and experience. The program uses a book of exercises designed to trigger glutamate with appointments to discuss progress and to keep people on track with the program.
'That's the reality of who we are as humans. We need structure, coaching and modeling to carry out the activities that are best for us,' he said.
The presentation kicked off the launch of the program at Avalon, which will be free for residents as part of an integrated research study with Carroll University, who will help monitor and coach participating residents.
Becoming more aware
He likes to cut past other impediments in the dementia battle.
'There is very much a stigma associated with dementia, almost like the stigma attached with mental illness,' DenBoer said.
Awareness is key to helping prevent dementia. Catching it early can delay many of the symptoms, and perhaps prevent some of them entirely.
'If it is at the beginning stages, then you can do something,' he said, 'Dementia develops six or eight years before anyone notices any symptoms.'
He encourages people who are in their 60s or 70s as well as people in the very early stages of dementia to get evaluated.
'It's something to be aware of — there are things that can be done about it,' DenBoer said.
According to his research, about 60 million people are living with dementia, and, with the baby boomer generation aging, the rates of dementia are expected to triple in the next 10 years — something DenBoer said the medical industry is not prepared to handle.
'People haven't heard the terms dementia and prevention, dementia and intervention,' DenBoer said. 'It's a disease, it's not a normal part of aging, and we have to address it as such.'