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Getting A Head Start on Alzheimer's Management

Authored by Noah Goodman

Art by Jenny Li


Every year, Alzheimer’s rates soar to new heights — with a projected 13 million patients by 2050 [1]. Thus, it is necessary that supportive programs be implemented for this growing population. The disease causes the destruction of brain tissue, making many previously learned cognitive tasks difficult to complete [2]. Therefore, the introduction of relearning programs for Alzheimer’s patients could serve immense benefits. Meanwhile, an innovative and well-known program, Head Start, has shown tremendous results in improving the cognitive development of young children [3]. Given Head Start's effectiveness in promoting the development of immature brains, it is reasonable to infer that a similar educational program could produce similarly beneficial outcomes for Alzheimer’s patients. 


Such a program could promote the recovery of lost neural connections. Alzheimer’s disease leads to the destruction of synapses — gaps between neurons in which information is chemically exchanged. Early childhood programs like Head Start have proven to be crucial in directing the neural connectivity process in immature brains, which have yet to develop an abundance of their synaptic connections [4, 5]. In addition, brain training games have been used to improve cognitive mechanisms in Alzheimer's patients, suggesting the possibility of neural pathway regeneration [6]. Therefore, a formal educational program similar to Head Start could provide an appropriate method of neural pathway stimulation in Alzheimer’s patients, potentially sparking neuronal regenesis and connectivity. 


Furthermore, a learning program could lead to the improvement of memory-based functions in Alzhiemer’s patients. Damage to medial temporal lobes causes the characteristic semantic and working memory troubles seen in individuals with the disease [7, 8, 9] and also contributes to issues with spatial place learning [10]. Similar problems with memory and spatial place learning are seen in children under five years old [11. 12]. For such children, the Head Start program has yielded an increase in working memory function [13], long term memory consolidation, and spatial awareness [14, 15]. Therefore, the Head Start program provides tremendous contributions to temporal lobe development. In addition, the working memory functioning of Alzheimer's affected brains has shown a tendency to increase upon the introduction of chunking teaching techniques, implying that proper stimulation of the temporal lobe can lead to remarkable progress [16]. Due to this apparent plasticity of the Alzheimer’s temporal lobe as well as its functional similarities to that of Head Start participants, it seems that an educational program similar to Head Start could help patients recover and maintain past memories. 


Moreover, a structured teaching program could improve the executive functioning of patients. Alzheimer’s disease often leads to frontal lobe damage, causing issues with attention, decision making, planning, motivation, and inhibitory control [17]. These same troubles are often encountered by children due to the fairly undeveloped nature of their frontal lobes. For such children, Head Start participation is linked to increases in attention span, inhibitory control, mathematical competency, and thus overall frontal lobe development [18, 19]. In addition, studies have shown that proper frontal lobe stimulation can lead to cognitive improvements in Alzheimer’s patients [20]. Therefore, implementing a program that offers patients with adequate frontal lobe neuronal incitement could lead to improved competencies similar to those seen in Head Start children. 


Finally, a program similar to Head Start could offer socioemotional benefits to Alzheimer's patients. Due to damage caused to the frontal and temporal lobes, many Alzheimer’s patients experience troubles in socioemotional functioning [21]. Similar difficulties are common among Head Start participants, who oftentimes lack support systems at home. For such children, participation in Head Start programs is associated with lower aggression levels [22], more positive approaches to learning [22], and overall increases in socioemotional functioning [14]. Furthermore, research has shown that cognitive stimulation can improve emotional symptoms and social interactions in Alzheimer’s patients [23]. Therefore, an interactive, stimulative, and educational program could provide extensive socioemotional benefits to Alzheimer’s patients. 


This discussion raises the question: what exactly would the framework of a program similar to Head Start look like if it were geared towards an audience of Alzheimer’s patients? The resounding answer is: structurally similar to the program given to the older range of children covered by Head Start, but with a stronger emphasis on mathematical competence, reading comprehension, memory consolidation, and attention retaining skills. In turn, lessons in Head Start that specifically prepare children for schooling would be dropped. In addition, it may be beneficial to incorporate physical activities into lesson plans for Alzheimer’s patients. A multitude of research supports this claim, linking physical exercise to increases in overall cognitive function, neurocognitive performance, visual memory recognition, and physical fitness in Alzheimer’s patients [24, 25, 26, 27]. Further research must be completed to determine the level of difficulty and strenuosity required for the program, although these factors would likely vary on a case-by-case basis anyways. Another important point to consider is that the relearning process is generally faster than the learning process, suggesting the potential for a faster-paced lesson plan than that of Head Start — although there is not adequate research to suggest that this principle applies as well for Alzheimer’s patients. 


Overall, the effectiveness of the Head Start program supports the need for the introduction of similar programming on a systemic level for Alzheimer’s patients. Although structurally and fundamentally similar to that of Head Start, the curriculum for this program would have to undergo rounds of building, testing, analyzing, reviewing, and editing before further details can be extrapolated regarding the specifics of its optimal composition. 


Works Cited


  1. Alzheimer's Facts and Figures Report. (n.d.). Alzheimer's Association. Retrieved September 23, 2023, from https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/facts-figures

  2. What Is Alzheimer's Disease? | National Institute on Aging. (2021, July 8). National Institute on Aging. Retrieved September 23, 2023, from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-alzheimers-disease

  3. Puma, M., Bell, S., Cook, R., Heid, C., Shapiro, G., Broene, P., Jenkins, F., Fletcher, P., Quinn, L., Friedman, J., Ciarico, J., Rohacek, M., Adams, G., & Spier, E. (2010). Head Start Impact Study Final Report. U.S Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED507845.pdf

  4. Alzheimer's Disease Fact Sheet | National Institute on Aging. (2023, April 5). National Institute on Aging. Retrieved September 23, 2023, from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/alzheimers-disease-fact-sheet

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  7. Schwab, S., Afyouni, S., Chen, Y., Han, Z., Guo, Q., Dierks, T., Wahlund, L. O., & Grieder, M. (2020, August 18). Functional Connectivity Alterations of the Temporal Lobe and Hippocampus in Semantic Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7504988/

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  9. Heerema, E. (2022, May 29). How Working Memory Is Affected by Alzheimer's Disease. Verywell Health. Retrieved September 23, 2023, from https://www.verywellhealth.com/working-memory-and-alzheimers-98572

  10. Silva, A., & Martinez, M. C. (2023, January 12). Spatial memory deficits in Alzheimer’s disease and their connection to cognitive maps’ formation by place cells and grid cells. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. 10.3389/fnbeh.2022.1082158

  11. Menon, V., Boyett-Anderson, J.M., & Reiss, A.L. (2005, September). Maturation of medial temporal lobe response and connectivity during memory encoding. Cognitive Brain Research, 25(1). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S092664100500193X

  12. Townsend, E. L., Richmond, J. L., Vogel-Farley, V. K., & Thomas, K. (2010, September 1). Medial temporal lobe memory in childhood: Developmental transitions. Dev Sci, 13(5), 738-751. 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2009.00935.x

  13. Hattie A. Harvey & Gloria E. Miller (2017) Executive Function Skills, Early Mathematics, and Vocabulary in Head Start Preschool Children, Early Education and Development, 28:3, 290-307, DOI: 10.1080/10409289.2016.1218728

  14. Bierman, K., Nix, R., Greenberg, M., Blair, C., & Domitrovich, C. (2008). Executive functions and school readiness intervention: Impact, moderation, and mediation in the Head Start REDI program. Development and Psychopathology, 20(3), 821-843. doi:10.1017/S0954579408000394

  15. Math Learning Trajectories: Spatial Awareness | ECLKC. (2019, February 22). ECLKC. Retrieved September 23, 2023, from https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/school-readiness/article/math-learning-trajectories-spatial-awareness

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