Stories: Voices from the frontline

Ariana Tart-Zelvin, Ph.D.

Ariana Tart-Zelvin, Ph.D.

Dementia is on the rise. By 2060, the number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common neurodegenerative cause of dementia, is predicted to triple in the United States, according to the CDC. In honor of Alzheimer’s Awareness Month in November, we spoke to the newest member of the Swedish Program for Healthy Aging, neuropsychologist Ariana Tart-Zelvin, Ph.D.  

Dr. Tart-Zelvin, whose position is supported by philanthropy, shares more about her work and how you can take control of your own risk factors for dementia.  

As a neuropsychologist, what conditions do you treat and how does your role fit within the Swedish Program for Healthy Aging?  

A neuropsychologist is a psychologist who has specialized training in brain and behavior relationships. I see a wide variety of patients, including those with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, various dementias, multiple sclerosis, ALS, brain tumors and brain injuries.  

I primarily work with Dr. Nancy Isenberg, who is a neurologist and the director of the program. To complement her work, I do neuropsychological testing to determine a patient’s current cognitive and emotional functioning. This includes establishing a patient’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses, as well as identifying possible mood symptoms. I also engage in cognitive rehabilitation with patients, where I teach them evidence-based strategies to improve cognitive abilities. 

What can interventions do for patients with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s? 

Lifestyle interventions can help individuals combat neurodegenerative processes. Eating well, getting good quality sleep, exercising and challenging our brains are incredibly helpful. That said, sometimes those changes can seem daunting or unrealistic for certain patients. However, something as simple as teaching patients to have a designated place  in their home to put their phone, wallet, keys and mask every day they come home can create a habit that will be helpful later on. As a patient experiences decline in cognitive functioning, such as in memory, the person has already formed this habit, which can withstand some decline. 

Cognitive testing can also provide data that allows me to make appropriate and helpful recommendations for patients and their families. If, for example, I learn that a patient benefits from the repetition of material during testing, I can encourage their family or caregiver to build in reminders throughout the day about upcoming appointments or other important events. But if repetition doesn’t help, then I recommend families redirect their energy and resources elsewhere. We can learn a lot from testing and use that information to help a patient’s strengths address some of their weaknesses.  

What kinds of tests do you use? 

I use tests that measure all our cognitive domains, both on paper and with a computer. I look at memory, attention, processing speed, visuospatial abilities, language, executive functioning and intellectual abilities. I also examine mood and functional abilities and ask about physical symptoms, because those factors can be very impactful to someone's everyday life and cognitive functioning. For example, I look at symptoms of depression and anxiety that might be exacerbating some existing cognitive difficulties or might even be causing them. If we address the mood factors, we can sometimes see an improvement in cognitive functioning and day-to-day activities. 

I also start each evaluation with a very thorough interview to get a sense of what the patient thinks is going on. I can establish cognitive, physical and emotional concerns, along with the onset and course of their reported symptoms. I'll often interview a family member, a caregiver, maybe even an employer, who might be able to provide another perspective on what's going on with the patient. Following an evaluation, patients get a very thorough report that summarizes their performance, as well as treatment recommendations.  

Why are we seeing more cases of dementia? 

There are several reasons. One of which is simply because of the percentage of the population that is reaching the age at which we typically see the onset of dementia. Another reason is, especially in the United States, people engage in a lot of unhealthy lifestyle behaviors which can contribute to medical conditions associated with an increased risk for dementia.  For example, obesity, diabetes and sedentary lifestyles where we spend hours sitting and working on screens, are on the rise in the general population. Diabetes is what we call a vascular risk factor and can increase the risk for later developing vascular dementia. 

Are you seeing this increase firsthand?  

I am fully booked until September of 2022. As the only neuropsychologist with the program, it’s flattering to see how my role is needed, however, I’m hoping we can expand our neuropsychology services to see more patients in a timely manner. The need is clearly there.  

What can someone do to reduce their risk of developing dementia in the future? 

We now know that genes play a very small role in developing dementia later in life. It's a big relief for those with a family history, but it also puts the large majority of the responsibility in our hands to make good lifestyle choices. 

That includes five key aspects that start with following the Mediterranean diet, which is considered anti-inflammatory and beneficial for your cognitive functioning, as well as your mood.

Then there’s getting at least seven hours of uninterrupted sleep per night and exercising regularly—including 45 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise, five days a week.

There are also a couple of less tangible things you can do. Socialization—really using your brain in conversations with other people—is so important. But most of all, find a sense of purpose in life— something that really gives you motivation to get out of bed and engage with the world around you.  

Even volunteering once a year has been shown to reduce someone's risk of dementia later in life. Research has shown us that just two weeks of regular aerobic exercise can be more beneficial to someone's memory than any medication or pill. 

Dr. Tart-Zelvin's position is supported by generous donors like you. Philanthropy makes it possible for patients to find the best multidisciplinary care at the Swedish Program for Healthy Aging. As demand for these services increases, you can ensure that the program grows to meet the needs of everyone in our community.  

To learn more about the Swedish Program for Healthy Aging, please contact us at 206-386-2738 or [email protected]