Tag Archives: memory

Successful Aging

Oh dear, yet another large print book. I have nothing against the concept of large print, ideally this makes it easier to read for people with vision issues. However, I wish the publishers did a better job with layout and leading, the latter essentially being the spacing between lines. Lines of large type clumped on a page does not, actually, make for easier reading (for me).

John W Rose, MD, and Rober L Kahn, PhD, compiled the results of a MacArthur Foundation Study on aging and the result is the 1998 book, Successful Aging. Given that this book was published 14 years ago, there was nothing new in it that I had not already seen in some other format.

There were, however, two items that did particularly strike me. The first was the wonderful optimism the authors exude in describing both the results of the long term study and what the findings could mean for the future. While they break down the study and discuss multiple aspects of aging, I think the book’s message can be summed up quite simply. To paraphrase Carol Dweck’s findings about mindsets, those with growth mindsets will find it easier to deal with aging and, as such, will likely have a positive impact on their own aging process. Those who have a fixed mindset will find that when the going gets tough, they may be less flexible in managing repercussions, which will likely have a less positive – and perhaps negative – impact on their own aging process.

The idea of mindsets holds true, as well, for younger peoples’ perceptions of older people. As a teacher, I have always believed that students rise or fall to the level of expectations held for them. Similarly, if younger people can have a positive mindset about older people and the process of aging, this is more likely to have a beneficial impact on their interactions with older people and on their own aging process.

Due to the date of the book, 1998, I tended to question some of the statistics the authors noted, especially regarding the prevalence of Alzheimer’s in the aging population. I am reasonably confident that the numbers of people with, and expected to exhibit some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s is far greater than what they forecast back in 1998. You can read more about the Latest Alzheimer’s Statistics in the United States in this article on the Texas Alzheimer’s Research and Care Consortium site. In any case, both resources note that dementia and Alzheimer’s are not part of the normal aging process.

Similar to what I have gleaned from other books on aging, and from attendance at various Learning & the Brain conferences, Rose and Kahn note there are several factors a person can engage with to help their brains and bodies age normally. Turns out we do have  some control over how we age, it’s not all in the genes.

  • engage in physical activity – good for the body and for the brain, as exercise helps stimulate BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor
  • fertilize your social network – showing care for and an interest in others, and allowing them to do the same for you makes for a strong support system
  • believe that you can manage whatever comes your way – while this may not always be the case, having a “cup half full” approach to aging can help you handle the blips

According to research, focusing on the above three elements will help an individual age successfully. Essentially, this approach translates to preventive care, and preventive care can aid with (in the words of the authors) “avoiding disease, maintaining high cognitive and physical function, and engagement with life.” Alternatively,

Disability in older people results from three key factors: 1) the impact of disease, or more commonly, many diseases at once; 2) lifestyle factors, such as exercise and diet, which directly influence physical fitness and risk of disease; and 3) the biological changes that occur with advancing age – formally known as senescence.

For more on healthy aging, here are some of my prior posts plus an article by Elkhonon Goldberg.

Music & Memory ~ Alive Inside Documentary

For as long as I’ve been interested in the brain, neurologist Oliver Sacks has been someone who has stood out. He is an author of many books, in particular one with an intriguing title, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, and one that directly relates to a topic of great interest to me, Musicophilia. If you’ve been following my blog posts, you’ll recall I am reading Dan Levitan’s This Is Your Brain On Music (just one chapter to go!)

The video clip below is from Alive Inside, a documentary about the impact of music on people who live with dementia and Alzheimer’s. The movie is being screened next week in New York City at The Rubin Museum of Art. You can read more about the program of bringing music to nursing homes and people with Alzheimer’s at Music & memory.

[Update April 22: My friend Ann sent me a link to NPR’s eight minute interview – For Elders With Dementia, Musical Awakenings – with Dan Cohen, the person who started the process of crafting individualized song lists for folks with dementia and Alzheimer’s, around which the Alive Inside documentary is based. In my Seated Sunday Yoga Songfest at The Pavilion, I have seen similar connections reblossom when a familiar song plays. There is often the added piece of a personal connection, as my hands connect with another’s, we move and sway and sing, we smile and look into each other’s eyes.]

Last post – Music; this post – Dance

For me, they are linked – I hear music, I start to move. And if it’s a certain kind of music, my body starts to dance. The only thinking I do is split second, wondering if it is okay to start dancing in my current surroundings.

Music has an amazing impact on the brain, influencing neuronal impulses to cause movement. This Facebook wall post says it all. In fact, there are instances where dancing helps the brain to think.

Parkinson’s Disease – Dance for PD

I have been training, via Dance for PD, to teach dance to people with Parkinson’s. At some point, a person who has Parkinson’s winds up having difficulty controlling their movement. Their body parts function just fine, but the signal that is sent from their brain to their legs, for instance, gets lost in translation. The signal never arrives, or it arrives late or in a discombobulated form.

It turns out, though, that when someone with Parkinson’s participates in these Dance for PD dance classes, something magical happens. The music permeates their minds and provides rhythmic accompaniment for their movement signals to traverse from the brain to the body part. Feet and legs can move, indeed, dance, often gracefully and fluidly, facilitated by the music.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

Very powerful it is, this dance! Especially in a social setting. Bringing people together to touch hands, figure out who leads, who follows, and how to create movement through music and footwork – all of this requires thought, concentration, focus and quick planning ahead. According to this article by Richard Powers, a dance instructor and presenter at Stanford University, dancing makes you smarterIt’s not just about the physical exercise provided by dance or the release of endorphins that ultimately makes a person feel good, it’s the social aspects that benefit cognition.

Frequent dancing apparently makes us smarter. A major study added to the growing evidence that stimulating one’s mind can ward off Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia, much as physical exercise can keep the body fit.

Fact is, when dancing with a partner, you have to pay attention and be one step (always figuratively and sometimes literally!) ahead of what they will do next. This causes your brain to build synapses and continually rewire itself the more you dance. All of this synaptical building is creating cognitive reserve, a mental buffer. The more neuronal connections you have, the better, so that if one portion of your brain malfunctions, the other portions of your brain can co-opt some of that cognitive reserve.

Dance is FUN and HEALTHY and SOCIAL and just plain GOOD FOR YOU!

Notes from a 6th grade session on Stress

There are three 6th grade sections at the school where I currently teach. These sixth graders have an enlightened and passionate Science teacher who makes study of the brain their main focus throughout the year. Among the many topics explored, she guides the students to learn about how they learn – metacognition in real time! She invited me to do a session with each section about stress and relaxation. Below are my notes.

If anyone has suggestions for improving this session, please leave a comment. Thanks!

                                           

Room Setup – this was done in the Science classroom where all the furniture was movable. We moved the tables to the perimeter of the room and placed the chairs in a semi- circle (a large C shape) on the inside of that perimeter, facing the board. We tried to have equal room between the chairs to facilitate movement activities. My chair was part of the circle and near the board for easy access.

The movement portions were accompanied by music played on my laptop using external speakers.

How’s everyone feeling? Introductions

Talk about how there are butterflies in my stomach due to: not knowing any of the students and being excited to teach a topic of huge interest to me. Further note that, due to nervousness and excitement, I will likely not remember everyone’s names.

Nonetheless, to try and help me recall names, please introduce yourself and tell me something about you. (Depending upon the time – for the first two groups we had 45 mins, for the third group we had 90 mins – have the kids also make a movement with their arms or body as they introduce themselves.)

Synovial Joint Warmup to music (Wade in the Water – about 4 mins)

  • toes & ankles
  • shoulders
  • gentle neck roll – avoid dropping head back
  • wrist rolls
  • squat knee circles
  • hip circles
  • empty coat sleeve twists
  • hokey-pokey right arm, then left arm
  • hokey-pokey right leg, then left leg
  • mouth & eyes
  • whole body

What happens inside your body when everything is pretty much feeling fine?

  • HOMEOSTASIS (homeo = same; stasis = stable) – a fairly stable balance in your body between the energizing & calming chemicals inside you
  • the SYMPATHETIC (activates “fight or flight”) & PARASYMPATHETIC (activates relaxation response) nervous systems are in synch with one another

Stress, anyone? What happens in your body when you fall out of homeostasis? i.e. out of balance –> you experience STRESS

  • “fight or flight”
  • release of CORTISOL
  • confusion
  • a sense of learned helplessness
  • a sense of feeling threatened

What’s the deal with CORTISOL?

  • a little bit is helpful for energy
  • helps enhance long term memory, i.e. learning
  • LIMBIC system is the Drama Department of your brain – memory & learning are enhanced when there is an emotional component
  • however, too much emotion in either direction results in more cortisol, which is detrimental towards learning b/c too much cortisol can kill neurons in the hippocampus, which is a major player in forming memory i.e. in learning
  • insufficient sleep can increase cortisol

Long-term effects of too much cortisol include:

  • decreased immune system, i.e. more likely to get sick
  • reduces memory ability, i.e. ability to recall existing memories & form new memories
  • impacts social skills & creative skills

What can cause stress? (below is a generic list –> rather than share these, do the BALANCE ACTIVITY listed below) 

  • lots of excitement
  • deadlines (school work, being late)
  • intense competition
  • hectic environment
  • really fast music
  • strong feeling of impending failure
  • surprises
  • being held accountable
  • feeling out of control
  • trying to accomplish something but not having what you need
  • an unusual challenge
  • insufficient sleep

Positive and Negative Stress – BALANCE ACTIVITY

  • talk about the Balance Scale (like the scales of Justice – one cup on either side of the center) – discuss what the balance represents
  • hand out index cards to each person and have them write down the negative stressors in their lives and the feelings associated with those stressors
  • ask the kids to each share one item from their list, and explain that it is quite possible that some kids will have the same or similar stressors
  • have the kids come up and place their Negative Stressor index cards on one side of the scale – what happens to homeostasis?
  • leave the cards in place on the balance and hand out a second set of index cards to each person – have them write down the positive stressors in their lives and the feelings associated with those stressors
  • ask the kids to each share one item from their list
  • take the negative stressor index cards off the balance and place them to the side – have the kids come up and place their Positive Stressor index cards on the other side of the scale – what happens to homeostatis?
  • kids will often quickly comment that the negative stressors need to return to the scale in order to return to a balance – discuss what this means in terms of themselves

How to deal with stress  (below is a generic list –> rather than share these, do the SUGGESTIONS ACTIVITY listed below) 

  • exercise (but not if it’s 4 hours or less before sleep)
  • eat a light, non-spicy dinner
  • get sufficient sleep
  • drink plenty of water –> there’s more water in your brain than anywhere else in your body (followed by muscles, then kidneys) and the stress response kicks in if access to water is restricted; within 5 mins of drinking water there is a noticeable decline in corticoids
  • lack of water is #1 reason for daytime tiredness –> hits your muscles and your brain
  • and try these relaxation techniques (we did a yoga session that includes various poses, breathing techniques and guided relaxation AFTER we did the SUGGESTIONS ACTIVITY noted below)

Dealing with Stress – SUGGESTIONS ACTIVITY

  • go around the room and have kids share what they do to destress
  • keep a running list on the board
  • do not judge the ideas (for instance, if they resort to eating comfort food that is filled with sugar)

Follow-up activities

  • using the list of kid-generated destressors as the basis, discuss positive ways to deal with stress
  • go further into the LIMBIC system
  • lead into a discussion/lesson on the Teen Brain

Thank you, Julia

Thanks to a comment by Julia on my post earlier this month, I purchased the DVD “I Remember Better When I Paint” and watched it this past weekend with my soon-to-be 20-year old son. The documentary is a little over an hour and a half, yet the time flew by as we watched interviews with health care professionals and viewed footage of art therapy in action. The film highlights some specific programs and contains seven additional shorts that complement the documentary: Recreating Social Bonds, The Importance of Physical Exercise, The Hearthstone Way, Art and Care in the Later Stages, Organizing an Outing, The Memory Garden, and Organizing a Creative Workshop.

I cannot stress enough the importance of sharing this information with anyone you know who is associated in any way with someone who has Alzheimer’s. As John Zeisel’s book title so aptly states, I’m Still Here – and that is why it is of paramount importance to inform families and caretakers about the various approaches and art therapies that can help people with Alzheimer’s let their loved ones know they are, indeed, still here.

Zeisel is responsible for ARTZ is Artists for Alzheimer’s, a wonderful program that opens the world of artistic expression to people with Alzheimer’s. I first learned of ARTZ (and blogged about it) in June, 2009, while attending a Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity conference. A few days later I finished reading Zeisel’s book and wrote another blog post.

One of the video shorts of particular interest is The Memory Garden (Les Jardins de la Memoire), which describes a residence in a suburb of Brussels, Belgium, for people who have Alzheimer’s. If you do not read French, thanks to Google Translate you can read an English description about Les Jardins de la Memoire. The DVD introduces The Memory Garden with extensive footage, and interviews with two therapists, as well as with Christian Englebert, the founder.

Ready for Prime Time

[5/3 UPDATE: A number of my posts have referenced Frances Jenkins, and she is included in the slide show below. On March 1, 2010, NPR’s Morning Edition had a five minute interview with Jenkins about The Teen Brain: It’s Just Not Grown Up Yet.]

This is the slide show that will accompany three interactive sessions spread out over April and May with a class of high school students. The sessions will cover The Teen Brain, followed by the limbic system, and finishing with the impact of drugs and alcohol on the teen brain.

I tend to not include many transitions in slide shows, but the transitions in this slide show are part of the impact of the presentation, and wish they transferred upon the upload to slideshare. For instance, the revealing of slides 17 to 20 helps bring home the point of the limbic system, and slides 24 through 29 display one word at a time, each with an effect related to the meaning of the word. After each new word is displayed, the high schoolers will be using their laptops to take self-portraits of themselves making a face to represent the emotion.

Slideshare houses my presentations, though I have yet to figure out how to get the presentation notes to display. Below are the URLs for the video clips and web sites. Hmm, just thought of a creative exercise to use with my Presentation Communication class next fall – here is a slide show without the presentation notes, now you make up the oral component!

slide 5 video clip
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yy994HpFudc

slide 8 video clip
http://www.loni.ucla.edu/~thompson/DEVEL/dynamic.html

All of the Frances Jensen video clips can be accessed from:
http://www.childrenshospital.org/patientsfamilies/Site1393/mainpageS1393P316sublevel357.html

slide 23 video clip comes from Tom Wujec’s TED Talk at:
http://www.ted.com/talks/tom_wujec_on_3_ways_the_brain_creates_meaning.html

and the Wizard of Oz clip comes from:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOKK8mAkiUI

While not referenced in this presentation, I highly recommend Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk at:
http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html

and for entertainment while learning, Pinky & the Brain explain the parts of the brain at:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Li5nMsXg1Lk

Brain Power from the New York Times

Throughout 2009 the New York Times published a series of six articles that discussed the latest findings in brain research. Here they are, starting with the most recent.

  • Studying Young Minds, and How to Teach Them – explains how our brains learn math. It turns out there are optimal developmental times and methods for introducing our brains to math, and they aren’t when/what you might have expected.  The following comment got me thinking about when and how we teach reading:

A similar honing process is thought to occur when young children begin to link letter shapes and their associated sounds. Cells in the visual cortex wired to recognize shapes specialize in recognizing letters; these cells communicate with neurons in the auditory cortex as the letters are associated with sounds.

The process may take longer to develop than many assume. A study published in March by neuroscientists at Maastricht University in the Netherlands suggested that the brain does not fully fuse letters and sound until about age 11.

  • Surgery for Mental Ills Offers Both Hope and Risk – talks about psychosurgery and its impact on those with O.C.D. (obsessive compulsive disorder). To paraphrase Shakespeare: To intervene via surgery or not to intervene via surgery. That is the question.
  • After Injury, Fighting to Regain a Sense of Self – reminded me of anecdotes shared by V.S. Ramachandran in his book Phantoms in the Brain (probably THE book that pulled me in to the world of our brains). Essentially, injury can cause the brain to play some cruel tricks on itself, including fiddling with one’s sense of self. Is there a spot in our brains that defines who we are?
  • In Battle, Hunches Prove to Be Valuable –  Call it intuition, a hunch, a feeling in your gut, but most likely you’ve experienced that sensation where you just “know” something to be so. While this article discusses the sensing of danger, it made me think of how we size up people in general, for instance, being “street smart”.

But United States troops are now at the center of a large effort to understand how it is that in a life-or-death situation, some people’s brains can sense danger and act on it well before other’s do.

Experience matters, or course: if you have seen something before, you are more likely to anticipate it the next time. And yet, recent research suggests that something else is at work, too.

Small differences in how the brain processes images, how well it reads emotions and how it manages surges in stress hormones help explain why some people sense imminent danger before most others do.

  • At the Bridge Table, Clues to a Lucid Old Age – An avid bridge player, my 78 year old Aunt Joan would love this article! The article discusses the 90+ Study, which “has included more than 14,000 people aged 65 and older, and more than 1,000 aged 90 or older.” The question seems to be, which came first – being cognitively active and thus having a sharp brain, or having a sharp brain and thus being cognitively active. One area in which all scientists agree is the importance of social connections for maintaining brain health.

In isolation, a healthy human mind can go blank and quickly become disoriented, psychologists have found.

“There is quite a bit of evidence now suggesting that the more people you have contact with, in your own home or outside, the better you do” mentally and physically, Dr. Kawas said. “Interacting with people regularly, even strangers, uses easily as much brain power as doing puzzles, and it wouldn’t surprise me if this is what it’s all about.”

  • Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory – This title opens up all sorts of questions related to ethics. On the other hand, what about a brain that has some unhealthy parts? I did enjoy one possible way of thinking about how our brain keeps memories:

…brain cells activated by an experience keep one another on biological speed-dial, like a group of people joined in common witness of some striking event. Call on one and word quickly goes out to the larger network of cells, each apparently adding some detail, sight, sound, smell. The brain appears to retain a memory by growing thicker, or more efficient, communication lines between these cells.