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Dementia Is Not A “Memory Problem”


I recently gave a one hour presentation on dementia and never once used the word “Memory”.

And it wasn’t intentional. It dawned on me after the fact… after I had discussed many of the challenges of dementia behaviors, and tips that would be useful to caregivers and meaningful to the person with dementia.

That’s because dementia is not exclusively a memory problem.  It is usually caused by a neurodegenerative disease that interrupts brain function beyond memory and attention.  It affects perception and interaction with the world- sensory processing, interpretation, communication, and the sense of self.

The cure for memory loss associated with progressive dementia does not lie in brain games and compensatory strategies targeting memory function.  It is found in strengthening all cortical connections through sensory experiences that require an active thought process and a motor output.  Add in some resistive exercise and high level balance activities and then you have hit the sweet spot of brain health.

Imagine you’re taking a hike in the woods and you come upon a stream that crosses the trail.  Your brain needs to generate all the available options for crossing it.  You look around the environment and begin to analyze the features of each option.  You decide to step across the stones instead of walking across the fallen tree… and then you act.

Whatever the results- your feet get wet, the stones wobble underneath you, you feel anxious and tense during the task- your brain is constantly engaged throughout the process, and is continually adjusting and responding to the sensory input.  The success or failure of the act isn’t the end game; it’s the full-blown engagement of multiple cognitive and sensorimotor processes.

People with dementia or MCI need opportunities to problem solve environmental obstacles using sensory information.  The generation of solutions is one of the great executive functions of the frontal lobe, and is hardly ever engaged during memory exercises.

Traditional memory exercises are usually limited to auditory or visual cues based on language inputs (remember this word, remember this sequence, remember this image).  Although memory deficits are easily recognizable in folks with dementia, memory loss is only one small symptom of much more global brain dysfunction.

Fortunately, Mother Nature has provided us with endless opportunities for cognitive and physical stimulation.  You don’t need to invest in a brain game app to improve brain function- you just need to head outside.


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