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Mind games help Alzheimer's patients

by Vivian Chung, staff writer

Alzheimer’s disease is a world-wide health problem, and the number of people suffering from it increases annually. It is not only an elderly health problem; young people also get the disease. While numerous public and private research organizations are working on developing high-tech cures for Alzheimer's, one doctor in Hong Kong has had good results with some very low-tech methods.

In Hong Kong, about 70,000 patients suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Because government financial resources and manpower are limited, Dr. Chi-sing Yu, a specialist in gerontology developed an inexpensive healing method in 1995 to give patients hope.

In an interview in Hong Kong’s Next Magazine, Dr. Yu described the treatment he provided Alzheimer’s patients in an elderly home. He had them play a traditional Chinese game, mahjong. After six months, about two-thirds of the mahjong-playing-patients had their diseases under control and some showed evidence of improved intelligence. Ultimately, these results increased their capacity for self-reliance.

In his interview, Yu indicated that playing mahjong improves one’s ability in analysis, calculating, logic, and memory as players are required to think and consider their next move. He also stated that any game which requires the player to think can help patients with Alzheimer’s disease. However, mahjong games are not enough. To reach recovery, patients must also take medications and do some simple exercises.

Dr. Yu stated that Alzheimer’s disease is not a cureless disease. The sooner the patients cope with it, the better chance they have to control it. Though the exact cause for Alzheimer’s disease is still a mystery, Dr. Felix H. Chan, a specialist in geriatrics, in a telephone interview, stated that there are two main causes of Alzheimer’s disease, neuro-degeneration disease (a factor of age) and genetics.

The first cause is age: The older one is, the higher one’s risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease. One in every 10 people 60 or more years old contracts it. In contrast, one in every three people 80 or more years old contracts it. Most Alzheimer’s patients are 65 or older. Occasionally, people suffer it in their late 40s and early 50s.

The second cause is genetics: One is more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease if one has a close relative with Alzheimer’s disease. According to Health.Com, “this could be due to genes that make you more apt to have the illness, or to exposure to something harmful in your shared surroundings.” Scientists discover that chromosomes numbers 14, 19, and 21 are related to this disease.


In addition, the risk is higher if a close relative has Down’s Syndrome or Parkinson’s disease. “Parkinson’s is marked by the gradual breakdown of nerve centers in the brain that control movement. Down’s Syndrome is a type of mental retardation,” according to Health.Com, which also notes that people with Down’s syndrome might get Alzheimer’s disease earlier than others.

Plaque can also cause Alzheimer’s symptom, because it can build up between nerve cells. Plaque is a protein called Beta Amyloid that researchers believe, according to Health.Com, “also kills nerve cells, but they aren’t sure how.

Stages of Alzheimer's

Dr. Yu's describes the three stages of Alzheimer’s.
First Stage: Temporary loss of memory. Sudden loss of interest in something patients like. Sudden difficulty expressing themselves verbally.

Second Stage: Can not recognize close friends. Gratuitous loss of temper and inability to recall it. Illusions and hallucinations.

Third Stage: Loss of weight Incontinence Can not recognize family members. Loss of personal identity. Unable to walk and eat.

No one knows why the protein forms plaque in some people and not in others,” but Dr. Chan states that plaque can shut down communication between the nerve cells.

Alzheimer’s has also been connected to a reduction of Acetylcholine in the brain. Acetycholine is a neurotransmitter that control reasoning and memory. Alzheimer’s patients show a severe drop, sometimes 90 percent, of Acetylcholine. Though there is no simple test to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, doctors can perform blood test or use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computer tomography to take pictures of the brain. Blood tests for genes, such as the ApoE gene, can only check one’s risk of contracting Alzheimer’s, but not identify who is suffering it.

Although using mahjong to help Alzheimer’s patients has not been proven scientifically, Dr. Chan said that it can definitely help mental acuity and improve hand-eye co-ordination. He also said that other games such as bridge and chess can also help Alzheimer’s patients.



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