Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2015: we know how to lower the risk, so why don’t we?

Vintage drawing of a young woman smoking
A change of lifestyle would protect this young lady against dementia: more dancing, less tobacco

bootcamp2015-small 2

In which five tips for minimizing the risk of Alzheimer’s are shared and ignored by the people most in need, although it’s never too late to benefit.

For years now, research into Alzheimer’s disease has had a clear theme: Change your lifestyle to protect your brain.

In July 2015, the Alzheimer’s Association held its international conference in Washington DC. Afterwards, they summarised some of the findings in a press release so perfect that it was re-published word-for-word by numerous newspapers—a comms officer’s dream.

No surprises, just big data confirming now familiar, common-sense advice.

We already knew what we can do to lessen the likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s, and now we know it more surely than ever. No surprises, just more proof.

Making these lifestyle changes “looks more promising than the drug studies so far,” said Dr. Richard Lipton of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, whose lab researches what makes up healthy aging. The findings on stress prompted Lipton to take up yoga.

The facts keep rolling in: lifestyle changes have significant impact

  1. Sleep better: 6,000+ people studied. Poor sleep is linked to mild cognitive impairment and later, Alzheimer’s. So go to bed earlier or get help. It’s worth it.
  2. Learn something new and complex: 7,000 older adults studied. Dementia risk is lower by good school grades and work demanding expertise. So work your brain: it’s worth it.
  3. Exercise, doh! 3,200 young adults studied for 25 years. The least active had the worst cognition when they were middle-aged. We knew that. So why wouldn’t you up your exercise regime? It’s worth it.
  4. Keep in touch and destress. 8,000 seniors studied for over a decade. Isolated people and those who brood over stressful events are more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment. That’s why my personal Boot Camp for Old Age includes “Make two new friends this year and every year” and “Raise the level of meditation practice.” Why wouldn’t you? It’s worth it.
  5. Eat healthy: no numbers supplied, but Lipton’s lab found a healthy diet lowered seniors’ risk of impaired executive function as they got older. Why wouldn’t you? It’s worth it.

Reining in my web presence

One person's 20-year web profile.
Part of my 20-year web profile: websites & social media channels. Time to declutter!

When your things (any things) are in a shambles, the shambles will get worse before it gets better. At present the things in question are my websites and social media channels.

You may notice this website become a bit of a shambles while I rationalise some of those messed-up things.

Flaws will become more obvious as I start fixing them:

  • categories are random
  • boot camp posts are incomplete
  • menu is muddled and amateurish
  • some pages need to multiply, others need to shrink
  • some information is on two websites
  • and so on and so on.

Nobody can manage 19 web sites and social media channels

That’s obvious, right? And I don’t want to. Some of those websites I’ve already shucked off. (And believe me, there were more!) The others need to be either abandoned or consolidated.

Life lesson for me:

Prune your multifarious activities and you’ll enjoy them more.


A systemless system for productive blogging


cartoon of woman blogging
See the lady blog. Blog, lady, blog!

Do you have a system for blogging? A schedule? A spreadsheet with topics and times? A goal?

Wish I did. For a while I hoped that the Raewyn Gwilliam system would work for me. Every time she has an idea, she writes it as a sentence, which she saves as a draft title. Because it’s clear, accurate and specific, she remembers the whole idea. When it’s time to write, she opens WordPress, grabs a title that appeals and writes. Bingo!

I did the first part — for a while — but I’ve never used anything from my list of brilliant ideas. I also have truckloads of scribbly notebooks filled with other brilliant ideas.

Here’s what works best for me.

  1. Get an idea
  2. Blog it impulsively
  3. Publish it immediately
  4. Smile!

Life lessons for myself

  • A blog is not a book
  • Trust the moment
  • Write less, publish more
  • Get it done and make it fun.


Singing through migraines

Me caught in a dazzle of sunlight: something like a migraine aura

A few weeks ago, 200-odd people sang Donizetti’s Requiem to an appreciative audience in the Wellington Salvation Army Citadel. And one of those 200 people was me.

I love this annual workshop, organised by the Wellington Region of the New Zealand Choral Federation. Anyone can join in, anyone at all! On Friday night we start learning an interesting choral work under an exciting director. 24 hours later we perform it, with stunning soloists. In a word, it’s a buzz — intensive learning in a supportive crowd, culminating in one all-or-nothing performance.

The migraine obstacle

Only one problem: I usually get a migraine and don’t make it through to the performance. Staring at little black marks page after page. Sunbeams striking at a particular angle. Bright lights. Heavy concentration. Yep, that’ll do it. But if I go home I’m still happy and satisfied, because I’ve still had most of the experience.

The challenge is always, how long can I last? Two hours, four hours, six hours?

A well-designed score and cunning tricks almost save the day


Some years we sing from scores that look like ants on the march. They’re tiny, cramped, more black than white, barely readable for me. Usability: fail. Page design: fail.

But the Donizetti score has good margins and layout and plenty of white space. Yes, that helps! I placed myself where the sun didn’t shine, took aspirin, drank loads of water and in short played all my anti-migraine cards. Almost made it.

Perfect timing: singing blind

The audience is waiting. We’re ready to perform. The beautiful soloists walk in. The conductor raises his baton … uh oh, is his face a tiny bit blurry?

Here comes the aura, a shimmering zig-zag lightning that grows and moves along its own sweet path. The conductor is a blank. The score is a blur. But I can’t leave now.

I know the first bit. And I feel fine, just blind, no other symptoms. I won’t lip-synch, I’ll sing. And I do, for the entire performance.

I make concessions. I skip the risky bits, like all those fabulous ff opening high notes. My greatest dread is of singing during a solo — imagine that!

The aura wriggles away in time for the applause. I’m fine, really just fine.

Life lessons for me

  • Learn your music really really really really well. I mean really.
  • You’re not a soloist. A kindly crowd will carry you through.
  • Adapt to circumstances.
  • Do your best. Your best is good enough.
  • Listen to the music in the migraine.
  • Rejoice!

A riff on “old people are…” by Renee

My friend and fellow New Zealand writer and role model Renee just did a rant and a rave on the theme of “Old is an all-purpose synonym for bad. Old people is an all-purpose synonym for  50 shades of bad.” Renee regards herself as fairly old — stereotype her at your peril! I just had to share. It starts like this…


Boozers, losers, out of jail bruisers. Jockeys, cockies, once were great soccies. Litterers, knitters, reliable house sitters. Miners, diners, intelligent signers. Gardeners, cooks, some who write books. Piano and guitar players, definitely some Gays.  Singers, clingers, ringers and wingers. Wealthy, stealthy, against all odds healthy. Runners, gunners, dedicated punners. Winners and players, sinners and swayers. Rich, poor, curious, bored. Patient, walker, creepy grey stalker. Painters, fainters, always some ranters. Fat, skinny, tall, short. New, old, borrowed, bought. Fraught, taught, occasionally sought. Preachers, teachers, some who make Features. Bad-tempered, kind, clear-sighted, blind. Some bold, some rolled, some polled, some sold. Doctors, nurses, lecturers, bursars.  Bouncers, prancers, dedicated dancers.  Happy, sad, conniving, bad.  Lout, devout, chock full of doubt. Whingers, Ginjas, society’s fringes.   Packers, actors, determined hackers.  Loving, hating, dating, waiting…

You can read TWO and THREE on her blog.

Renee’s Wednesday Busk: Old People Are …

Horrible question: What is your goal in life?

Your goal is your own goal. We are not all mountaineers.

Here’s a quote from one of my favourite blogs, A French Toolbox.

I’ve been asked one day about my “goals in life“. I have been very disturbed by this question, which is so… all about efficiency. I couldn’t think of a goal, even one. I feel like Cioran, in shock and in anger, after being asked about what he was “preparing”. If a French says he has “goals” in life, he sounds ridiculously Action Man, that’s it. The idea itself is a nightmare – at least when you’re more than 22 years old. I don’t want to be efficient, I just try to live, right? Dreams, maybe… Dreams, OK.

I couldn’t agree more. I resent headlines like this one, and there are thousands out there:

You must embrace a purpose-driven life and serve mankind in some way.

Oh, I must, must I? Why? Who says so? Get stuffed, you big bully. What a bloody nerve. (Really, I know you’re only trying to help, but I’m giving you my gut reaction.)

Your life is a life, not a business

Da Vinci's study of the foetus plus words: I am not a business

Soberly, I see no reason why we should apply the concepts and strategies and jargon of business to our private and personal lives. We are dropped into the world — often by accident. As we mature, sure, we may discover a burning passion, a purpose, a specific personal reason for living, and if so, that’s pretty wonderful.  It might be a task that needs finishing. People who need our support. A problem that needs solving. A mission, a faith that we must fulfil or share.

Having a “higher” purpose in life is known to be a Very Good Thing: it plays a role in keeping us alive and vital and engaged in the world. That’s what both research and intuition tell us.

But knowing your purpose in life is not universal, it’s not a given, and it’s not necessary. And life without a known purpose can be every bit as joyful, satisfying and worthwhile. Everyone is needed, everyone brings their own gifts to the world.

Life itself is to be relished — and used wisely if we can. That’s obvious. But it’s not a duty.

An older, simpler truth: you already have a purpose

To put it another way, the way of the Dalai Lama (and he should know), our purpose in life is to be happy and be kind. Simplistic? Only on the surface.

I doubt that he means we should pursue a life of hedonistic ecstasy, surfing from one high to another. (I think that to pursue happiness is counterproductive, but hey.) I presume the Dalai Lama means that we should aim to navigate the ups and downs of life from a steady base of kindness to ourselves and others, understanding happiness as contentment and satisfaction with one’s life overall.

My video course Write Over Divorce: Banish the pain with a pen includes a lecture on this dilemma. (It’s a lot more helpful than this blurt.)

If you  honestly feel a need to discover a more particular purpose in life, then do. One way is to ask yourself:

  1. What am I good at?
  2. What do I love doing?
  3. What difference do I want to make?

Maybe you’ll find a “higher” purpose — but maybe you won’t. And that’s fine. Because you already have a purpose: to be happy and be kind.

Jean-Pascal’s blog post: Proust & les Hirondelles : Chronicle 4


Photo of mountain by Pseudopanax @ wikimedia cc-by-3.0; Da Vinci’s study of the foetus, public domain, adapted by Rachel McAlpine

The healing power of writing: poems about dying wisely

Morning glory flowers, one in bloom, one dead

On my blog Poems In The Wild, I will be posting poems about the dying and death of a dear brother-in-law, some years ago, starting tomorrow. When I wrote them, the process was cathartic and the writing helped me to process and learn from the experience. Writing the poems made me feel close again to my brother-in-law even after his death.

You may well find these poems of interest on various levels.

  • If you have lost someone and are looking for comfort or catharsis or clarity
  • If you are interested in the way writing can heal
  • If you too are mystified or frightened by death.

I can’t wash away your grief but perhaps I can stand alongside you for a moment or two.

You’ll find the poems on my blog, starting here with a short introduction:

Facing the unbearable: poems about dying wisely

pic & poem by rachel mcalpine cc-by-2.0