Recently, a video on social media moved us all. It featured Marta C. González, a former professional dancer now suffering from Alzheimer's disease. As she listened to Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," this former ballerina recalled, with precision, the choreography of her performance from over 50 years ago. This emotionally poignant scene also sheds light on the characteristics of Alzheimer's disease. "In the case of this dancer, it's procedural memory that endures for a long time," explains Dr. Sandra Benizri, a neurologist. She points out that there are different types of memory, and procedural memory operates on different circuits from other memory types.
"Emotions also play a significant role in preserving or triggering memories."
Individuals with Alzheimer's struggle to store new information and to retrieve already stored information. However, buried memories are not necessarily lost forever. While loved ones with Alzheimer's often seem to gradually detach from their recent and distant past, not all is lost. Many significant memories can remain dormant, waiting to be stimulated. "Several senses are very effective at bringing memories to the surface, especially smell and hearing. Music must have triggered this ballerina's old memories," notes the neurologist.
She adds that emotions also play a significant role in preserving or triggering memories. The importance of an event lies not so much in the event itself but in the intensity of the accompanying emotion. It can be great joy or strong emotion, as well as fear or other impactful, positive, or negative impressions. "For example, we tend to remember details related to a shock. We are more likely to recall significant elements because they were accompanied by a lot of emotions. Older memories are also easier to retain than recent events."
"We understand why nursing homes emphasize sensory workshops and Snoezelen rooms for Alzheimer's patients."
Thanks to Dr. Benizri's insights, we now understand why nursing homes place such emphasis on sensory workshops and Snoezelen rooms for Alzheimer's patients. In addition to providing well-being and relaxation to often restless individuals, these activities have a genuine function as memory triggers and stimulators, thanks to sensory stimulation. Long-buried memories can thus resurface.
"To prevent the disease, the social aspect is crucial."
It is important to remember that, to date, there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease. While we can slow it down, we cannot stop the degeneration once it has begun. Medications primarily aim to improve and slow down the symptoms. In addition to the characteristic memory loss in Alzheimer's disease, there are numerous other symptoms, including several psychiatric symptoms such as depression, agitation, and wandering related to disorientation and disrupted circadian rhythms of wakefulness and sleep.
Among the most common types of dementia are Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia, which involves diffuse vascular damage to the blood vessels leading to the brain. "Currently, the focus is primarily on prevention and reducing risk factors. Physical activity and exercise are highly recommended. Brain oxygenation is fundamental. There is also a hereditary component to Alzheimer's disease, but it remains very low and mainly concerns cases of early-onset Alzheimer's."
If emotions and feelings stimulate the memory of Alzheimer's patients, social interactions and all they entail represent a key factor in reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. "To prevent the disease, the social aspect is crucial. Depression is a significant risk factor, as is a life of isolation. Social interaction is fundamental in preventing dementia. It keeps the brain active, and when a person is isolated, their brain is less stimulated," explains Dr. Benizri.
"Isolation among seniors increased in 2020."
This situation, which particularly affects seniors, is particularly alarming for several reasons, especially considering the importance of social bonds as a factor in reducing the risk of Alzheimer's disease, as mentioned by Dr. Benizri.
Furthermore, a study conducted by a team of German scientists and reported by Santé Log, the specialized website for healthcare professionals, analyzed the consequences of social distance on our brains. The study, conducted on zebrafish but with conclusions applicable to humans, identified a neuropeptide, Pth2, as an "indicator of socialization." "The study's lead author, Erin Schuman of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, describes this brain molecule 'as a thermometer of the presence of other people in the environment.' This neuropeptide appears to reverse the effects of isolation. The study found that the more isolated the fish were, the more Pth2 increased in their brains."
"Man is a social being," as Aristotle already told us. Even though health requirements must be respected, healthcare professionals agree that everything must be done to prevent the isolation of the elderly. Among other beneficial initiatives, it is worth noting that a new health protocol allows for visits to residents' rooms and outings from December 15 to January 3. (Le Monde). This relaxation of rules in nursing homes has been met with great relief by families and those concerned just before the holidays.
While the memory of Alzheimer's patients becomes increasingly affected as the disease progresses, the seat of emotions remains intact. Sociability, sensory stimulation, tenderness, and affection can make a significant difference in both managing the disease and preventing it.
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