The Truth About Memory

The Truth About Memory
How lucky we are to be able to say, I remember
— I Remember

Some of you may recall the first episode of the podcast Serial, when the show's host, Sarah Koenig, reveals: 

"Before I get into why I've been doing this, I just want to point out something I'd never really thought about before I started working on this story. And that is, it's really hard to account for your time, in a detailed way, I mean ...  How'd you get to work last Wednesday, for instance? Drive? Walk? Bike? Was it raining? Are you sure? Did you go to any stores that day? If so, what did you buy? Who did you talk to? The entire day, name every person you talked to. It's hard. Now imagine you have to account for a day that happened six weeks back ..."  Serial, The Albi

As it turns out, recalling things is hard for many of us.  As we age, it gets even harder. Why? Because the human memory is not an exact science. It's impressionable and fragile. As we age, our memories also become more susceptible to disease such as Alzheimer's or Dementia. Alzheimer's is actually a sub-type of dementia, and still a disease with a lot of unknowns.

So a few weeks ago, when I stumbled on the alluring website called "I remember," I thought,  'I need to blog about this.'

"I-remember" is a beautifully visualized depiction of human memory. It was designed by a group of Parisians to increase Alzheimer's awareness by engaging the user in an immersive digital experience. The site's animation supposes to be a metaphor for the effects of Alzheimer's on the brain. The site's message is equally as effective as its visuals:  In order to keep running, this website needs visitors who are willing to upload their memories onto the site.  In short, without visitors and memories, the site will disappear.

After finding "I remember," I spend many hours reading the memories that have been shared on it. These pieces ranged from being comical and raw to boring. But collectively, they had an impact. They left me feeling like I was part of a larger human story. Of course, I wanted to do my part to keep that story going, so I shared a memory, which you can read here:

Looking back, I have not had a lot of personal experiences with Alzheimer's disease. My only experience to draw from comes from a time when I was still living in the "south." This happened to be Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where the wisteria blooms twice a year, and the sweet potatoes is the biggest cash crop for the state.

While living in Chapel Hill, I managed to spend a month in a nursing home, which also housed and cared for patients diagnosed with Alzheimer's. My memory from that time is blurry, but one thing does stand out: the insistence of both the caretakers and the health professionals to make these patients remember.  To do that, there was a constant, daily stream of "don't you remember" questions posed to these patients, which usually made them more anxious or irritated. I came away from that experience being aware of how little we knew about Alzheimer's.

That was about a decade ago, and now we know much more. Yet, it's still difficult to separate the facts from fiction when it comes to many disease including Alzheimer's. To help with this, I have outlined here some of the key findings of the 2014-2015 National Institute of Health's Progress Report on Alzheimer's. Here is what we know:

  • Today, the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s remains to be a person's age. After turning 65, our risk of getting Alzheimer's doubles in five year increments to that age.

  • Diabetes is a significant risk factor for the disease . One study showed that participants with diabetes experience greater cognitive decline, about 20 percent more, than individuals who were diabetes-free.

  • Lastly, anti-cholinergic drugs, which include medications for overactive blander, seasonal allergies, depression and sleeping problems may increase the risk of Alzheimer's significantly. These drugs work by blocking the brain neurotransmitter acetylcholine and may lead to impaired cognition, especially in older people.

If you want to read more about Alzheimer's disease, check out the following sites, which are reputable and good resources for information.