For the past month, I have been sharing with everyone some amazing new (at least new to me!) information I’ve learned about incapacity that I want to share with you, too.

Dr. Jonathan D. Canick, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist/neuropsychologist at Sutter Health in San Francisco, spoke at the June meeting of the Northern California Chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA).   Dr. Canick specializes in the study and assessment of mental capacity and shared some startling facts with us.

First, he said that Alzheimer’s disease starts about 16 years before there are any noticeable symptoms.  Further, by the time there are visible signs, 80% of the neurons in the person’s brain are dead, leaving only 20% to do the brain’s work.  Wow!   That it takes a loss of 4/5 of our brain before it is apparent that something is wrong, shows how well the pathways in our brains can adapt.

An even more startling fact is that our mental capacity does not degrade as we age, as long as there are no illnesses, like Alzheimer’s disease, or injuries, like from traumatic brain injury or stroke.   In fact, capacity is graphed as a straight horizontal line from our early adulthood to when we die (again absent illness or injury), in contrast to the downward sloping line that depicts the decline in our physical body due to aging.

Dr. Canick acknowledges that there are some changes in the brain as we age that result in an elder not being able to take in new facts at the rate a younger person can do so.  Makes sense to me!  We all know how fast a young child learns.  But, what Dr. Canick explained is that, while our elders are not able to learn new things as fast, they are much better at analyzing and evaluating new information and situations.  This is why elders have historically been revered as “wise”.

Dr. Canick believes that, in the not too distant future, mental capacity will be part of our annual check-up, leading to early detection of illnesses or injuries to the brain.  Early detection will enable early treatment that can slow the effects of illnesses like Alzheimer’s.

Finally, Dr. Canick revealed that recent studies show that, other than genetics, the two factors most affecting whether a person develops Alzheimer’s disease are lack of  sufficient sleep and cardio exercise.  The recommendation is 8 hours of sleep every night and 30 minutes of cardio exercise at least 5 days a week.     Well, I guess that this last bit of information should have been expected.  It seems that everything works better when we get enough sleep and exercise.