Kupuna Transitions

Conversations about neuroscience can overwhelm me, and medical references to the way our brain works tend to lose me in a cloud of scientific terminology. Personally, I would rather discuss the social aspects of aging issues, yet I also know it’s helpful to grasp the complexities of the brain when caring for individuals with dementia.

Fortunately, I’ve recently come across a neuroscientist who is able to make scientific brain lingo very relatable. Dr. Wendy Suzuki’s engaging and conversational approach to understanding the brain in her book, “Happy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain & Do Everything Better,” connects neuroscience with everyday references. I highly recommend either reading or listening to her book, or viewing Dr. Suzuki’s TEDWomen talk about the brain-changing benefits of exercise.

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One my greatest takeaways has been Dr. Suzuki’s finding that powerful emotional attachments to an experience can strengthen and create new memories in an individual, even if they have short-term memory loss. More often than not, I have witnessed the frustration of a relative who wants their loved one with dementia to recall a new experience or expectation. I have occasionally seen situations where something new is retained, and didn’t fully understand why.

Dr. Suzuki explains this phenomenon by explaining the power of the amygdala, which processes emotions and “helps boost the memory.” She says this “shows just how interdependent emotion and cognition, or feeling and learning, truly are.” Therefore, our chances of creating a new memory for someone with dementia are increased if we can connect it with a powerful, emotional experience.

Along with resonating at an emotional level, other factors are involved in the retention of a new memory. Something new or unusual is effective because our brains respond to new stimuli as a way to protect us. Give us some new faces or environments to process, and through this novelty our brains will really become activated. Should you add some important associations to the mix, such as hobbies and favorite pass-times, and you may be able to create a lasting memory for someone with memory loss. The reason these connections are so valuable is that strong memory networks build a framework in our minds to retain information about those things we enjoy most.

Dr. Suzuki also helps to clarify the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. She says that “dementia is a general term that describes a set of symptoms that are severe enough to effect a person’s everyday life. These symptoms most commonly include a decline in memory function, planning ability, decision making and other thinking skills. The term alone does not describe a specific disease, such as Alzheimer’s disease.”

Now that we’ve distinguished what dementia is, how do we do our best to protect our brains and keep them healthy? Let’s grow healthy new brain cells! According to Dr. Suzuki, “exercise is the most transformative thing that you can do for your brain today,” which improves the strength and size of brain cells in our hippocampus, holding off dementia. If you, like me, tend to mix up the function of the hippocampus with the other important parts of the brain, it may help to think of it as our main photo album. It holds our long-term memories and assists with learning and emotion.

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All of these factors are involved in memory creation and retention, so let’s be extra good to this powerful little “hippo” and build some happy new brain cells through 30 minutes of movement daily. Protect it with all you’ve got and you’ll be setting yourself up for a memorable future.

Karyn Clay is a gerontological specialist who began caring for older adults in 1994 and earned her B.A. in Gerontology from SDSU in 1998. She founded Ho’oNani Day Center in 2002 and Ho’oNani Care Home in 2015, which make up Ho’oNani Adult Care Services, Inc. and are located on the same property in Kamuela. She invites you to join her monthly Caregiver Conversations gatherings at Tutu’s House.