Benita Adesuyan meets the founder of 4get-me-not Alzheimer’s Organization to discuss how physical and mental health are connected and learns how a game of ping-pong can save your memory…
Physical activity can help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s in the elderly. The UAE’s 4get-me-not Alzheimer’s Organization and German Neuroscience Center are running a table tennis tournament at Dubai Festival City Mall on Friday September 11 and Saturday 12, to highlight the link between physical activity and brain health. It’s unclear exactly how many people suffer from the debilitating memory-loss disease in the UAE, but Desirée Vlekken, founder and CEO of 4get-me-not Alzheimer’s Organization, says that these events are designed to raise awareness of the condition to all sections of the community – sufferers and caregivers. ‘Last June we did a sampler event and we wanted to make the connection that table tennis is good for your brain. We received about 350 registrations from different parts of the UAE, and hope to do that again this year,’ she says.
Anyone who wishes to play in the two-day event can register online. Participants will be divided into three categories by age – over 45s, over 18s and minors aged 17 and under, and registration closes on Tuesday September 8. ‘It’s a fun tournament and a mishmash of professional and non-professionals,’ says Vlekken. ‘Those who don’t know how to play can attend a sports clinic, and volunteer trainers will donate their time to teach anyone who’d like to learn.’
Event partner German Neuroscience Center will have a team of doctors on site to offer advice and information. Vlekken says this collaboration is vital to the event. ‘As part of registration, we will not only be taking names, but we’ll also be distributing brain-teasers and questionnaires to complete before the games. Players who’d like theirs interpreted should come back to us.’
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but Professor Derk Krieger, a neurologist at the German Neuroscience Center, says that playing table tennis can actually help to delay its onset. ‘Alzheimer’s disease is something that starts in 50- to 60-year-olds. The brain shrinks and the more brain cells lost the worse it gets. A sufferer could lose 50 to 60 percent of their brain and be fine, then suddenly decline very quickly. Playing ping-pong and other things will let you take advantage of the remaining connections for longer.’
Professor Krieger says that it’s the mental process of the game that’s so beneficial. ‘Table tennis is all about multitasking. You have to do several functions at the same time. You follow the ball and calculate the strength you should use to hit it, and there are visual connections, too. This doesn’t help to reverse Alzheimer’s, but it helps to prevent its onset. And there are other things you can do, too, as long as multitasking is involved. For example, you can read something while following a conversation. If you do that every day, it’s going to keep your mind agile and alert.’ He adds that physical health is also vital. Table tennis is good because it’s accessible. You can’t ask sufferers to do cross training or go bike riding, but living a sedentary lifestyle is the worst they can do.’
In her search for a deeper understanding of Alzheimer’s, Vlekken found that there was very little support or cohesive information in the UAE. She established 4get-me-not Alzheimer’s Organization in 2011, when her father was diagnosed with the disease, and running it is now her full-time job. ‘4get-me-not is like a tribute to father or atonement on my side, because I’m so far away from him. He’s in the Philippines and I’ve been here for 15 years, so this is my way of giving back. I want to help people who are in the same situation as I am, so they don’t have to do as much guess work as I did.’
The organisation’s website, www.4get-me-not.org, offers plenty of information in simple terms about Alzheimer’s disease and how to prevent it, therapeutic activities, how to get your memory checked and private home care services. ‘Awareness is crucial,’ says Vlekken. ‘We want people to know that we’re here, and where they can go for support. We have to raise awareness that Alzheimer’s is real and it’s not going away, there’s no cure, so we might as well do something about it.’ World Alzheimer’s Day table tennis tournament, September 11-12, 10am-10pm. Dubai Festival City Mall, Dubai Festival City, www.4get-me-not.org.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease
Professor Derk Krieger of the German Neuroscience Center explains some of the early signs… • Memory trouble. Alzheimer’s is a memory-loss disease, but not everybody who has trouble remembering has Alzheimer’s. They might have another treatable condition, which is causing the symptom.
• Getting lost. Finding the way home on a map or finding things in the supermarket is a problem.
• Trouble following geometric patterns. In diagnostic tests we ask people to copy a geometric shape, such as a star. Generally, Alzheimer’s sufferers would struggle with that.
• Lack of concentration.
• Disturbed sleeping and possible hallucinations.
‘If you’re worried about yourself or a friend or family member, then be sure to get tests with a neurologist, get a brain scan and neuropsychological testing done and make sure that you can rule out other causes of dementia before you call it Alzheimer’s.’ www.gncdubai.com.