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Training Your Brain with Facebook—
Dementia Prevention Program Using SNS

Tsutomu Taga
Associate Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

“Dementia” is an overall term describing a wide range of symptoms that drastically impair cognitive functions and interfere with daily life. There are various causes of dementia. These include alcohol consumption, a hematoma, or damaged blood cells. In the case of alcohol consumption or a hematoma, as long as the nerve cells are recoverable, symptoms will improve if their cause is eliminated. In the case of damaged blood cells, symptoms of dementia will subside if blood circulation is improved. Unlike these forms of dementia, Alzheimer’s and other diseases which exhibit symptoms of dementia are said to be caused by toxic proteins. The process between the production of toxic proteins and the death of nerve cells is still being hypothesized but it appears that aerobic exercise and consumption of antioxidant foods makes it difficult for toxic proteins to damage nerve cells. Furthermore, it appears that toxic proteins are more likely to be produced and accumulate in the brain as one gets older and that keeping certain lifestyles increases the likelihood of Alzheimer's. This explains why people tend to display symptoms of Alzheimer's as they get older. A troubling trait of Alzheimer’s is that toxic proteins accumulate over periods of ten or twenty years and symptoms of dementia only appear once nerve cells die. Under current health insurance coverage, it is impossible to receive treatment until symptoms appear. Furthermore, medical treatments to regenerate dead nerve cells are not yet an established practice. Presently, the only way to prevent Alzheimer’s is to live healthily and “postpone” the age at which symptoms occur.

Unfortunately, there is no established theory that suggests intellectual stimulation reduces the risks of Alzheimer's. However, autopsies on brains of individuals who did not suffer from symptoms but did have large amounts of accumulated toxic proteins in the brain have led to a theory that suggests intellectual activities stimulate nerve cells and result in a brain where symptoms of dementia are less likely to appear. However, intellectual activities run contrary to the natural instincts of living things. Living things manage their behavior in order to maximize efficiency and enable high power output in times of crisis or opportunity. Therefore, exercising your brain requires you to minimize the amount of time spent on behavior that is habitual and not intellectually stimulating. Furthermore, you must continue doing this. Using your brain is hard work!

Sponsored by the Nerima Ward of Tokyo, a dementia prevention program utilizing social networks has been developed. Social networks such as Facebook enable users to share information with an unspecified number of people globally as well as exchange information with specified individuals. The program implemented in Nerima Ward has twelve sessions in total and is carried out once a week. Participants create confidential groups on Facebook, the existence of which is only known to group members, and learn how to exchange text and images. The aim of the program is for participants to continue exercising their brains after completion of the program by posting text and images to Facebook and replying to the posts of other group members. It is important to create groups that will continually stay active. Otherwise, participants will simply acquire knowledge and disperse. The setup of the program differs from ordinary classes in the sense that if participants have a question they must first ask other participants for advice. If they are unable to find a solution, they then ask the instructor together for an explanation. The relationship of teaching and being taught fosters a sense of unity and independence within the group, and the act of teaching others exercises the brain even more than being taught.

The program also allows participants to plan and carry out events. Planning and carrying out an event does not only exercise the brain. Enjoying something that is not part of one's daily routine is an effective way of encouraging others to continue activities after the program's completion. Events held once a month require participants to check content changes on Facebook, exchange opinions, and coordinate.

The program implemented by Nerima Ward began in 2012 and targeted participants aged 65 or older. Nerima Ward covers all the operational costs and participation is free of charge. Because taxes are used to run the program, the government staffs value the idea to select participants in a nonarbitrary manner rather than the idea to select more suitable participants for the program, so that participants are selected through a lottery. Many program participants are motivated to learn about Facebook rather than prevent dementia, and not all participants go on to become involved in independent activities groups. Because Facebook use generally declines with increased age, not all participants in independent groups use Facebook. However, almost every program results in the formation of independent groups who participate in ongoing activities. One challenge going forward for the program is to increase the number of participants that become involved in independent groups and establish ways of attracting participants who encourage Facebook activity. In the long term, the aim is to create groups that grow independently with group members that encourage neighbors to take part in their activities, and to self-propagate. There are limits to the number of dementia-prevention practitioners that can be added through the program alone. The obstacle in creating self-propagating independent groups lies in the tendency to want to exclude new members once a strong sense of fellowship has been established. Developing programs that promote self-propagating groups is a major issue going forward.

Tsutomu Taga
Associate Professor, Faculty of Human Sciences, Waseda University

[Profile]
Academic Background
1987 – Professor Taga graduated from the Department of Human Sciences, Faculty of Letters, Keio University (Psychology major)
1991 – He completed the Master’s Course (Sociology major) at the Graduate School of Human Relations, Keio University.
2002 – He completed the Master’s Course (Social Welfare major) at the Graduate School of Social Sciences, Tokyo Metropolitan University.
2011 – He completed coursework for the Doctor’s Course (Social Welfare major) at the Graduate School of Social Sciences, Tokyo Metropolitan University.

Career
1992 to 2010 - Senior Researcher, Group of City Planning and Landscape Architecture, POLYTECH ADD, Inc.
2004 to 2008 - Visiting Scientist, Dementia Prevention Office, Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology, and other institutions
2010 to 2013 - Chief Executive Officer, Institute of Behavioral Change and Communications
2013 to present - Associate Professor on the Faculty of Human Sciences, Department of Health and Social Welfare, Waseda University

Publications
Joint translator, David P. Moxley (translation supervised by Kase and Nonaka), The Practice of Case Management, Chapter 8, Chuohoki (1994)
Joint authorship, edited by Hiroko Kase, Zaitakukea Gaku [Home Care Studies], Third Edition, Chapter XI, World Planning (currently being printed)