When it comes to dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease, memory gets a bad rap.
Memory loss is usually everyone’s biggest complaint- forgetting things, repeating things, losing things. And although memory loss is frustrating and memory seems to be the cognitive function most essential to meaningful living, there may a different source to blame.
Sometimes it is actually Memory’s close cousin, Attention, who is the real problem child.
Attention is the building block of all learning. Without attention, there is no memory*. Attention comes in many forms (sustained, alternating, divided…), but it’s main job is to take information perceived in the environment and decide what is important. This includes filtering out extraneous stimulation, blocking internal stimuli (the dialogue in your head), and sustaining enough brain power to push that information into the memory centers to be stored.
Think about this way. You can’t find your keys. You forgot where you put them. Now, did you really forget where you put them, or were you not paying attention when you put them down?
No need to pit these two brain functions against each other as opposing forces. They actually work together- along with many other cognitive processes- to give our world meaning. But in an age of information overload and the rising incidence of attention deficit, it is an important distinction. Attention is also something that can be manipulated by external factors, which is good news for caregivers and healthcare providers who want to help a person living with dementia maximize their cognitive function.
Now how can we increase attention, especially in those with dementia? Here are a few hacks:
- Direct the senses to what needs attention using environmental cues (colored toilet bowl water).
- See, hear, feel, smell, taste, move… integrate the body into the function (don’t do it for them).
- Reduce extraneous information to reduce amount of stimuli to filter (clean up the clutter).
- Limit attentional demand to one thing at a time (don’t walk and talk if trying to navigate or balance).
- Boost neurotransmitter function involved in attention (my favorite tricks):
- Dopamine and norepinephrine through socialization
- Dopamine and Serotonin through nature and exercise
- Acetylcholine through anticipation and wonder
- Oxytocin through deep pressure, hugs, joint compression (weighted blanked, vest)
Always prime attention if the goal is memory formation. Actually, prime attention before all cognitive and motor functions to facilitate learning and engagement with the world.
This is good advice for all human brains.
*excludes motor memory which does not require elevated attention