Dec. 3, 2008 -- At the First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, N.C., the people who fill the pews every Sunday are shaking their fists at Alzheimer's disease -- doing all that they can to keep the disease at bay.
During the week, some of the older church members, many of whom are well into their 80s, get together to exercise their hearts and minds, which according to several studies may help delay or ward off Alzheimer's disease -- a progressive and fatal brain disease for which there is no cure.
Congregation members take part in daily activities -- from horseback riding, exercising, organic gardening and learning Spanish -- all to stimulate the mind and invigorate the body. Even the sound of church members learning new languages can be heard by just walking down the church's halls.
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It's all thanks to the determination of the Church's senior pastor, Rev. James E. Brown. Brown's work on this holistic program, or what he has dubbed the five "ministries," began after his mother passed away from Alzheimer's disease.
"Mama's always been a go-getter. She taught for 39 years, one of the brightest stars in the Rocky Mount City school system," Brown said. "And then she would start to withdraw. And withdraw."
He recalls that his mother's mind had deteriorated to the point that she would water plastic flowers, and put the mail in the fridge.
"One of the frustrations for a person who has a loved one with the disease is you want to do something. You need to do something," the Reverend said. "Not just for the person, you need to do something for yourself."
With many First Baptist Church congregants also passing away from Alzheimer's in recent years, Rev. James Brown took a stand.
"I know that I have the gene. I can't change the gene. So I work twice as hard in other areas to combat it," he said. "And every time I look at my children, I know that we've got to find a cure before they're affected. I'm doing it for me, but I'm also doing it for those coming after me."
Statistical research shows that the African American community is at a high risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and they are also a group which has historically been reluctant to get involved in research.
Congregants Say Memory Improved
The project at First Baptist Church began at Duke University Medical Center, where researchers believe that staying mentally and physically active will help put the disease on hold.
"There's been a variety of studies from our own work and from the work of others that suggest that some of these things, like exercise, actually have a measurable effect on cognitive decline over time," said Kathleen Welsh-Bohmer, Director of Josephine Kathleen Bryan Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at Duke University.
Researchers have been collaborating with the Church, sending doctors to test participants' memory, which has brought this at risk community under the lens. So far, the results suggest the efforts here are working.
Fredrick Hill, 72, learned how to ride a horse. Since beginning horseback riding, Hill's blood pressure is down, his outlook is up and he believes his memory is better.
"Every chance I get, I come out here," he said. "It keeps the mind working."
The real proof of success will come in five years, when doctors will have more data to confirm that they've staved off the disease. But researchers still believe the program is already so successful, it should be repeated in churches across the country.
"We've noticed that people seem to be more spry and engaged and happy," said Welsh-Bohmer. "You can start [programs] late in life and they seem to have a beneficial impact regardless of your age. And so it's never too late to start."
The programs, which blend mental stimulation with socialization have enlivened and energized the community -- all thanks to new ministry that nurtures both the soul and the mind.
"My brother said to me after looking at some of the work we were doing, 'Mom and Dad would be proud of you now.' It means a lot when you know you're doing all you can," Brown said. "And then you leave the rest in God's hands."
For more information from the Alzheimer's Association on simple ways like crossword puzzles and volunteer groups to stay mentally, physically and socially active and help offset the risk of Alzheimer's late in life, click here.