Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month

It’s June –  Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. Did you know that? If not, no worries. I’m here to tell you all about it. Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month is a time to help raise awareness about a disease that affects millions of people world-wide. Though researchers know a lot about Alzheimer’s, they still don’t have a cure, which makes the disease still a mystery. That’s why purple is the color designated to Alzheimer’s, because it symbolizes mystery. But purple also represents magic, and it is that magical day millions of us are waiting for, the day when we can say with confidence that Alzheimer’s no longer exists, that it is no longer a threat to us or our loved ones. During the month of June, the Alzheimer’s Association encourages us to wear purple, to spread a purple light in honor of all affected by this life-robbing disease.

To learn more about Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month,  I encourage you to read this past Sunday’s special section of the Burlington Free Press. Here you will find my article, “Agitation in Alzheimer’s, about the latest research involving an investigational medication to help reduce agitation in those living with the disease. In the 31-page section, you’ll also find personal narratives about individuals with Alzheimer’s, stories about the role of caregivers, support services available, and the community’s efforts to raise awareness.

Happy June!

Wear purple; wear hope.

 

“The sky is already purple; the first few stars have appeared, suddenly, as if someone had thrown a handful of silver across the edge of the world.”

Alice Hoffman, Here on Earth

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“Surviving and Thriving”

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A few weeks ago, I stood on a stage in front of hundreds of people, shaking like a mother@#$%!&, and shared my story of “Surviving and Thriving” at the annual brain injury conference held by the Brain Injury of Association of Vermont. I also listened to others, including mental health providers and rehab specialists – share their experiences with TBIs. As the theme of the conference, “Surviving and “Thriving, came up over and over again, I began to think about what that phrase really means for TBI survivors, and others. I wasn’t looking for the “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” kind of answer (I’d like to see someone take on that impossible task, literally.) Of course, precisely how each one of us survives and thrives differs, but I came away from the conference realizing that a common denominator does exist: Human emotion. Because we’re human, we’re vulnerable and experience grief, anger, jealousy, anxiety, and so on. That being the case, I’d like to share some takeaways from the conference, tidbits offered by Psychologist Laura Basili, which define, at least for me and hopefully for you too, the nitty-gritty of “Surviving and Thriving”:

 1) A willingness to remain vulnerable. Being vulnerable is part of “Surviving and Thriving,” though we tend to equate vulnerability with weakness, and who wants to be perceived as weak? But, alas, like I said, we’re all vulnerable, like it or not, and it doesn’t mean we’re weak at all. If you don’t believe me, maybe the poet David Whyte will be more convincing: Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding under-current of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to be something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.

The operative phrases, which are worthy of repeating, are in the last two sentences: To be invulnerable is … to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.

So why not wrap your arms around vulnerability, walk alongside it, or invite it into your home?

2) We first need to understand grief before we can grieve what we’ve lost – maybe it’s the loss of independence after a brain injury or the death of a loved one from a TBI, or any other kind of loss. But grief doesn’t only come in the form of sadness; it also presents itself as anger, denial, guilt, fatigue, desperation, hyper-vigilance, resentment, and anxiety. So when you’re socked-in by one of those emotions in the aftermath of a loss, know that you’re doing what humans do: grieving. To grieve is to grow, meaning you’re “Surviving and Thriving.” As Laura does with some of her patients, if you’re struggling with grief, you might want to try drawing a picture of suffering, then drawing one that resembles hope. I’d love to see what you come up with.

Oh, I almost forgot one more tidbit, something that brain injury survivor Hannah Wood shared during her keynote address: Do one thing every day that scares you. That doesn’t mean you have to free climb up the face of Half Dome in Yosemite or go skydiving. Maybe it’s applying for that dream job you’ve been telling yourself you’re not qualified for because you’re afraid of being rejected. Maybe it’s making that phone call to a certain individual who has experienced a similar traumatic experience as you, but you’ve held off, afraid she’ll tell you she doesn’t want to talk about it. Whatever the scary thing might be, go for it! After all, as Laura shared with the audience from one of her clients, “The suffering is in the waiting.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Multi-tasking and Cognitive Costs

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As you read this blog post, is your smartphone on speaker, playing bad “hold music” while you wait for a “live” voice to answer? Or maybe you’re glancing back and forth from the computer screen to your phone, responding to text messages in between reading a few sentences of this post. Multi-tasking is in vogue; it’s hip, cool. And how many times do you see “ability to multi-task a must” in help-wanted advertisements? But while we believe we’re multi-tasking, the truth is we’re not at all. A neuroscientist at MIT says that what we’re actually doing is “switching from one task to another very rapidly.” And, though we believe multi-tasking means greater productivity, each time we do this, he adds, there are “cognitive costs.”

Multi-tasking increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and the flight-or-fight hormone adrenaline, both over-stimulating the brain and creating what I call “brain fog,” causing loss of focus. To make matters more complicated, multi-tasking creates an addictive-like feedback loop in the pre-fontal cortex, ironically, the area of the brain responsible for helping us stay on task. In other words, our brains are rewarded for losing focus. Multi-tasking is like using cocaine; the more one uses it, the more one wants it, needs it. So when you talk on the phone, check your email, send a text message, boil water for tea, your brain is stimulated by a rush of endogenous opioids. (“More, please!”) Think of potato chips, ice cream, candy – they taste good going down, but the empty-calorie effect brings your brain, and you, to a crashing halt. And making the brain shift from one task to another causes it to burn extra oxygen and glucose, the very ingredients needed to stay on task. When this happens, you might feel wrung-out, ready for a long nap. What happens when you lose steam? You get frustrated, and anxiety ensues, triggering another blast of cortisol to your brain. You can’t think straight. You become more frustrated, and angry. Maybe you get so angry you take it out on others.

And the more you multi-task, the more decisions you need to make: should I answer that phone call, text, or email? Should I go to the grocery store now or later? Which apple should I buy: a Fuji or a Delicious? When making these decisions, you consume so much energy that you end up making poor decisions when it comes to more important issues, like loaning money you don’t have to an unreliable family member, or going out for drinks and getting so drunk that you can’t get out of bed the next morning to make it to that job interview your father-in-law hooked up for you. (Now you’re in trouble.)

Also, researchers have found that multi-tasking can reduce one’s IQ by as much as fifteen points. This decrease is similar to what researchers would expect from smoking pot or staying up all night. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter studying, or smoked pot, you know what it feels like: your brain might as well be stuffed with gauze.

Enough of the harsh truth. Instead, here are some tips to help you resist the temptation to multi-task. Shut off your cell phone when working, and place it far out of reach. If you can’t bring yourself to shut off your phone, envision a stop sign each time it rings or buzzes, and say to yourself, “No, I’m not responding.” Make a list of priorities each day and check them off when complete. Dedicate time each day to complete mindless tasks, like folding the laundry or emptying the dishwasher.  Keep your office door closed so others know you don’t want to be disturbed. Put a do not disturb sign on your door. Plaster your office door with yellow caution tape, set up a trap, eat a lot of garlic. Tie yourself to a ship’s mast – it worked for Odysseus, even though he did put up quite the fight.

Of course, I’m thinking big here with these tips, and you might be laughing at this post, saying, “She’s got to be out of her mind to think I can give up multi-tasking. Tell my boss this, and I’ll be fired in a New York minute.” The key is to guard against multi-tasking whenever possible; start small. Maybe it’s shutting off your cell phone for an hour each day for a week, then two hours the next week. Believe me, I too am victim to multi-tasking. In fact, while writing this post my cell phone rang. (I forgot to shut it off.) Guess whose name lit up on the screen? “Mom.” Yep, I answered it.

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Music and Memory

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While researching the effects of music on memory for an article I recently wrote for my local newspaper, I had the opportunity to speak with a participant of an adult day program in the area. Like most of the other participants, he has Alzheimer’s. When speaking with him, he shared with me his life-long passion for classical music, and invited me to listen to one of his favorite albums that he just happened to have with him at the program that day. He slipped it onto the 1940’s turntable situated in the center of the homelike furnished room, then lowered the needle onto the record. He started humming to the piano solo, snapping his fingers, sweeping his arms through the air, performing a music conductor’s dance.

The music did something for him, to him. Perhaps you know what that feels like. When you hear a specific song from your past, what happens? You can’t help but time-travel in your mind, linking that song to a long-ago, meaningful event, like the day you got married, or your high school senior prom, or the one, and only, time you sang Karaoke. Research indicates that listening to music activates regions in the brain responsible for motor activity, emotions,  creativity, and autobiographical memories. Listening to music is particularly beneficial to those suffering from memory loss, whether it’s from a traumatic brain injury, dementia, or Alzheimer’s.  Music calms ceaseless brain static, helping one to focus on the present and recall  long-term memories.

Dan Cohen, a social worker who founded the non-profit Music and Memory, recognizes the benefits of music, particularly for those suffering from memory loss. His wish to be able to listen to his favorite 60’s music if he were living in a nursing home was the driving force behind his idea to bring iPods, or other digital music technology into elder care facilities, with the  goal of delivering personalized music to the residents, thereby improving quality of life. The miracle-like effects of Music and Memory are evident in the documentary “Alive Inside.” The film features a nursing home resident wearing an iPod, listening to his favorite Cab Calloway songs. Within seconds of hearing the first song, he re-awakens, the music stirring him from his sedate, nearly unresponsive state. His eyes snap fully open, his voice singing in a clear vibrato, as if someone just reset his memory’s circuit breaker.

When I told my husband and two of his adult daughter’s, Rachel and Hannah, about Music and Memory during a recent family gathering we decided to make a list of our favorite songs to share with one another. We each took turns playing them on our iPhones, and, as we did, something remarkable happened: a flash-flood of melodic memories. “Hobo’s Lullaby!” Hannah called out. “Remember, Rachel, Dad used to play it all the time.” Then it was Rachel’s turn: “I learned this Fleetwood Mac song on my guitar. When was that, like ten years ago?” When I played “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin, I felt as if I was back in high school again, singing out loud with my friends, “And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man in the moon …”

Which songs jump start your time-travel engine? Where do those songs take you?

 

 

 

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Visual Art and the Brain

Do you enjoy drawing, coloring, painting? So what if you are not a Picasso or a Van Gogh.  What I’m about to share with you just might inspire you to head out to your local art shop for colored pencils and a drawing pad. Research suggests that creating visual art enhances memory, and improves interactions between certain parts of the brain. Based on feedback from a small group of retirees, improvement in brain functioning may also strengthen one’s psychological state of mind.  This seems logical. After all, as researchers say, “The creation of visual art is a personal integrative experience—an experience of ‘flow,’ in which the participant is fully emerged in the creative activity.” With that integration, brain connections are strengthened, which, in turn, boosts self-confidence.

For individuals with a TBI, art is a form of therapy. It restores connections in the brain damaged by trauma. This restoration process is called neuroplasticity: the changes in nerve pathways of the brain that affect behavior. Yes, we can actually re-wire our brains by intentionally changing the way we think and do things. Since 2010, therapists at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), at Fort Belvoir, Virginia have been using art as a tool in treating war veterans who have sustained TBIs.

Art therapy does more than help to heal an injured brain. Jackie Briggs, a therapist at NICoE says, “For service members who might already have trouble expressing themselves … art therapy gives them a chance to use free expression, allowing whatever needs to bubble up from below the surface to be seen and evaluated.” When thoughts “bubble” up, service members gain a better understanding of their symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, and depression. With that deeper understanding, their relationships benefit, because they are able to effectively unearth their buried feelings and thoughts.

At NICoE, service members decorate blank papier-mâché masks. The reasoning behind using this form of art therapy is based on how trauma works; it blocks the part of the brain responsible for speech and language. The image of the mask itself is tangible, a concrete method of showing how service members are feeling. As one of the therapists at NICoE says, “the masks have given service members a visual voice.” The added benefit is that they know they are not being judged, or critiqued. Making the masks affords them the opportunity to explore, engage in the process of creating something that encourages free expression.

The formof art doesn’t matter. Art is art. Juliet Madsen, a veteran of two wars who sustained a TBI when a roadside bomb hit her convoy, likes to doodle. In an email exchange with her this past fall this is what she had to say about doodling:

Doodling stimulates your creative side, allows your body to calm down, takes the active stresses and puts them on the back burner, can sometimes give you an artistic answer to your problems if you open to it, and gives you a time out… I am a big fan. Once you are an accomplished Doodle Artist take a set of colored pencils to your work or thin point sharpies, then you are really working it.

Juliet inspired me. I bought myself a sketchpad and sharpie and started doodling. I’m now a big fan too!

Are you a doodler, a painter, a sketcher, a creator of masks? If not, why not join in. Grab a sharpie, a pen or pencil, a paintbrush. As Juliet said, “Stimulate your creative side.”

Cheers to free expression, to an integrative experience – and to a healthy brain!

If you want to learn more about the masks service members have created, read the “The Invisible War on the Brain,” published in February 2015 by National Geographic.

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/02/table-of-contents

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We Can Cure Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimers

Since November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness and Family Caregivers Month, I thought I would take the opportunity to thank the more than fifteen million Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers in the United States for their hard work. You are to be admired, and applauded.

More than forty million people worldwide have Alzheimer’s disease. Included in that number is my father, and perhaps your own parent, grandparent, spouse, or best friend. Because I often feel helpless when I visit my father in the nursing home as I listen to him stutter my name, and watch his hand shake as he tries to lift a scoopful of ice cream to his mouth or turn the page of the newspaper, I must reach out to you. I reach out with the ice-cold truth about this insidious disease that pisses me the fuck off, and makes me want to punch the protein out of its plaques and tangles. (I’m not a violent person at all, really. But watching a loved one slowly fade into the dark more than sucks.)

Now that I’ve purged from my gut how I really feel, I’d like to share with you what Dr. Samuel Cohen, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Misfolding Diseases in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, has to say in a video about Alzheimer’s:

By 2050, Alzheimer’s will affect one hundred fifty million people.

If you plan to live into your golden years, your chance of developing Alzheimer’s will approach one in two.

Alzheimer’s is the most expensive disease in the United States, costing two hundred billion dollars each year.

Out of the top ten causes of death worldwide, Alzheimer’s is the only one that cannot be prevented, cured, or slowed down.

The US government spends ten times more on cancer research than on Alzheimer’s.

People with Alzheimer’s can’t always speak out for themselves.

Alzheimer’s is always fatal.

Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of the aging process.

If you have a brain, you are at risk for Alzheimer’s.

We now know that the plaques and tangles clogging the Alzheimer’s brain consist of protein molecules.

We can cure Alzheimer’s.

To hear Dr. Cohen’s TED Talk about Alzheimer’s and the new class of drugs being tested to stop the disease, please click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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