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Keeping Your Brain Sharp

May 28, 2014

When I decided to be public about my HIV, my life changed. I'm passionate about not seeing more infections in older people whose doctors think they don't have to talk to them about safe sex.

-- Jane Fowler, 78
Journalist, Kansas City
Diagnosed with HIV in 1991

Jane Fowler (Illustration: A.E. Kieren)

Jane Fowler (Illustration: A.E. Kieren)

People with HIV are at higher risk for the brain slowdown everyone experiences as they age. But there are plenty of ways to fight it and keep your mind nimble!

Few have done as much to highlight the risk of HIV in the over-50 population than Jane Fowler, 78. Ever since the journalist and grandma found out in 1991 that she was HIV-positive from unprotected sex with a man she'd been dating after her divorce, she's been a tireless speaker and advocate for the importance of HIV awareness and testing in older folks. "When I decided to be public about my HIV, my life changed," she says. "I'm passionate about not seeing more infections in older people whose doctors think they don't have to talk to them about safe sex."

Fowler's still on the speaking circuit. But she feels her work has gotten harder in recent years because she's not as sharp as she used to be. (She sure sounded sharp over the phone!) "I feel like my powers of hearing, speaking, and thinking things through are weakening," she says. "I can feel myself aging."

Even if you're in your 50s or 60s, you may identify with Fowler, and with good reason: In recent years, researchers have discovered that HIV seems to play a role in "aging" the brain faster than it ages in HIV-negative folks. That could be because some HIV med combinations can't penetrate the barrier that encases our brain, so HIV is replicating in that area, or it could be because HIV heightens inflammation, which takes its toll throughout the body, including the brain. Either way, it can mean that you may experience certain aspects of brain slowdown -- such as spotty memory, grasping for words, or taking longer to complete tasks -- faster than your HIV-free peers.


But hold on! There's lots you can do keep your brain as healthy and sharp as possible. Here are a few:

Get help to kick heavy drinking and/or drugs. Studies have shown that the mix of HIV, aging, and heavy drinking or drug use (especially cocaine and crystal meth) are lethal to the brain, and can lead to long-term damages. If you are drinking heavily or doing drugs, reach out for help. Your mind will thank you later. As it will for quitting smoking, too! Carcinogens aren't exactly brain sharpeners.

Rule out other causes. Talk to your doctor if you're having a hard time with brain function. Perhaps it's due to a lack of certain nutrients or depression.

Keep your brain connected and active. A job that brings you pleasure, volunteering, activism, socializing with friends and family, travel, writing, reading, playing board or card games -- they're all things that keep the mind alive. So does prayer and meditation -- research shows it! So ask yourself where you're lacking among these things and then reach out to put more of them in your life!

"I take my fish oil and calcium," Jane says. "Plus, I read constantly. I'm on the board of my local library. And I love magazines -- Time, People, EW, Vanity Fair. I love keeping up with what's going on in the world."

Tips From the Pros

Jane Fowler, 78

Get real. Accept your diagnosis, then work on living with it and deciding what needs to be done.

Get help. Find a doctor and a social service provider or case manager that you like. They can be so helpful.

Get over it! Then forget you have HIV! I never dwell on it. I never think about it except maybe every morning when I take my HIV meds, or when I go in for bloodwork.

Get happy. I might have a beer every night. I like ale. I'm true to Kansas City Boulevard Beer, a local brew.

Get healthy. Every morning I have fresh fruit and yogurt and cover it with nuts and dried fruits. That's my one concession to healthy eating. I love Mexican food, I love Chinese food! I despise turkey. I have really pulled away from red meat, and that's not easy in Kansas City, because we're a meat town!

Get connected. You need to get out of yourself. Find things to do that you enjoy. You need a mission in life.

This article was provided by Positively Aware. Visit Positively Aware's website to find out more about the publication.
See Also
More on Aging & HIV


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