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Tom Harrington: Why our episode “Mind Games” matters to me

In the cluttered room of our home, which my father called “the den,” one wall was nothing but books from floor to ceiling. There were all kinds: History, poetry, geography, politics, biography; the extensive library of a well read, curious man. Among the volumes was a tattered, leather-bound copy of “The Sinking Of The Titanic,” published only a year after the ship went down. As a boy, I often thumbed through it, enthralled by the bravery of so many aboard; the band playing “Nearer My God To Thee” to calm the panicked passengers. I marvelled at the maps, the artist renditions of the sinking, the remarkable photos of survivors huddled on the rescue ship Carpathia.

Those memories flooded back -- my father, the book, that cataclysmic event -- as I finished working on our final episode of the season. Mind Games is an examination of the industry around the brain: An industry that is growing exponentially in response to the demands and fears of millions of us. For those of us who claim that 60 is the new 50, we have questions about what's going to happen to our brains as we age. And too many of us have seen family members deal with some of the most puzzling mysteries of medical science today: Dementia and Alzheimer’s.

This week’s one-hour special is an attempt to separate science fact from fiction. We’re exploring some of the options pitched to keep our brains healthier and perhaps even fend off the disease. And we’re looking at whether they are worth the money. Whether it is popular brain training games such as Lumosity -- that promise you a cognitive “edge” for a monthly subscription -- or experimental technologies that offer hope to people dealing with symptoms of memory loss or dementia, for a price. Along the way, I’ve met some smart, extraordinary people, had my head examined -- literally -- and learned some things that I want to share.

But this is more than a consumer story. It is a personal journey driven by my own experience with Alzheimer’s. Both my father and mother were taken by the disease, as was my father-in-law. Imagine watching a movie in which you know the tragic outcome; you know how it ends. But it’s real. It’s like sitting through James Cameron’s “Titanic,” again and again. (Some of you may think that IS suffering, but you get my point.)

Alzheimer’s reminds me of that massive ’berg, looming on a still ocean, almost black like the night. So invisible, no one in the great ship’s crow’s nest saw it coming until it was too late. We all know the disease is out there. And it’s likely that someone you know has collided with it -- or will -- and slowly, sink from sight. Maybe we’ll miss it or it will miss us.

But until science and medicine produce the kind of protective, predictive tools for memory loss, we must scan a different horizon to try and steer away from danger. There are many simple, reliable courses to follow. Remain engaged with family and friends; make your job a means of stimulation; keep your brain active with books, games, music; be physically active. The new fitness regimen and eating habits which helped me lose 40 pounds this past year are not only for my body but my brain, too. Does any of it guarantee a safe voyage? No. But it is far better than ignoring the reality that this neurological danger exists. I’ve done a lot of stories in my career, probably thousands. I’d like to think all of them (OK most of them) mattered. To me; to you; to someone. But Mind Games is as important to me as any story I’ve ever told. I hope it will matter to you.


Watch Mind Games Friday, April 10 at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. NT) on CBC TV and online.