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The pathway to better memory (literally)

We have all been there.

A name on the tip of our tongue. A person, a movie, a book title.

But try as we might, there is no retrieving that illusive word.

Dementia is a VERY unsexy conversation.

But we are all about refreshing the unpopular conversations.

Dementia and all its forms, including Alzheimer’s disease, have become synonymous with ageing. While there have been breakthroughs in the diagnosis of this illness, and even more recently in delaying its onset, a true cure has eluded even our most sophisticated scientists.

It is perhaps one of the most cruel illnesses: the loss of a person’s identity and memory of all the relationships built over decades.

So what can we do about it?

The usual answer is: not much asides from the usuals - healthy diet, better sleep, exercise etc.

The better answer is: pathways.

Yes, more neural pathways.

Lisa Genova, famed author of Still Alice with a Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Harvard University (a real under-achiever, clearly), made famous this analogy to help millions of people better understand how to construct their own brain so it is wired for better memory in the long term.

Genova invites us to imagine a piece of information that we are trying to recall.

Something that we own in our brain, that's already been encoded.

She explains that if we have 10 ways of getting to that piece of information - different associations and ways of understanding it - then we can lose 1 or 2 of those synapses (fancier term for ‘neural connections’), and still have 8 or 9 ways of getting the piece of information recalled.

But if we only have one way of getting to that piece of information, if you only have 1 synapse, once that synapse is blocked, then the information is forgotten.

For a lot of people with early-onset Alzheimer's, especially younger or very intelligent people, they lose 1 or 2 synapses here and there, but still have another way to get there.

And this is how the disease can go undiagnosed.

This is why we should be conscious of building new pathways, intentionally, in our lives. Reading new books, doing all sorts of puzzles, learning new skills as much as we can.

And as we continue this important conversation, another recommendation for your Book Club: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks.

"In examining disease, we gain wisdom about anatomy and physiology and biology. In examining the person with disease, we gain wisdom about life."


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