With Alzheimer’s, tangled memories may be culprit in skewed stories

  • If you've ever talked with someone who has shared an experience with you, but remembers the details very differently than you do, your circumstances are not unusual. Individuals tend to view each experience through a unique lens, because we are shaped by our past experiences, and perhaps our genes.


    For example, it's well known that there can be multiple witnesses to a crime, yet each witness has a different view of what happened, and most are extremely sure their own version is the correct one. Another good example might be sibling recollections. Siblings often remember events that they shared as children very differently. That's because they each viewed the circumstances from their personal perspective and interpreted what happened in the only way they knew how, which could be very different from their siblings perspective and interpretation.

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    A story on Google, titled "Dementia sees memories ‘tangled', reminded me of how skewed even a healthy human brain can be. This story, however, is about a study done on diseased human brains. According to the story researchers feel that "Entangled memories rather than memory loss may lie behind the mental confusion seen in dementia patients..."


    The story also says that some researchers suggest that a person with Alzheimer's may not be forgetting things so much as that he or she has lost the capacity to maintain detailed memories, therefore what the person does remember is skewed - in some cases, seriously skewed.


    The lead researcher in this study, Dr Lisa Saksida, who is from the Department of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge University, was quoted as saying, "This study suggests that a major component of memory problems may actually be confusion between memories, rather than loss of memories per se."


    Most of us who have had loved ones with dementia have faced the frustration of having them tell us we did something we know we didn't do, or we failed to do something we know we did do. Most of us have had our loved one deny telling us something we know they told us. Most of us have felt like banging our own heads against a wall out of sheer frustration.


    Yet, we've learned, hopefully, that the person with the disease can't help the skewed memory process. We've learned to skillfully dodge most of these painful conversations, since we understand the person is working with limited and declining cognitive ability.


    Some of this Google article seems to read like a "which came first, the chicken or the egg" riddle, but the information may turn out to be helpful in finding causes and cures for dementia, particularly Alzheimer's disease. The more scientists tease out what is happening in the aging brain, particularly the brain that shows signs of Alzheimer's disease, the more likely it is that researchers will find intervention or medication that can reverse, if not stop, the disease.


    Personally, I feel that the more thoroughly Alzheimer's is understood, the more we, as caregivers, can learn to cope with the challenges of caring for a loved one with dementia. My dad didn't have Alzheimer's, but he had severe dementia as a result of failed brain surgery. I instinctively learned to go with whatever he thought his reality was (within limits, of course. There were times when that wasn't wise). I was scolded soundly by his psychiatrists at the time, but I ignored them because my instincts told me that for dad, this was the right thing to do. Eventually, the psychiatrists told me I was right.


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    I didn't understand the exact nature of what had happened to Dad's brain, nor did the doctors. But I could feel my way along with him, in his unique circumstance. Sometimes that's all we can do. I had shared a great deal of life with my dad, so I could remember at least my view of what had happened during his past - yes, my view could have been somewhat skewed, as well, since I had and have my own personal lens. However, I did have more insight into Dad's memories than a doctor did.


    I'm glad I approached Dad's situation the way I did. That approach may have been wrong for someone else, but for his situation, it was right. New research that looks at the seemingly small nuances of what is happening in the brain of a person with dementia may help people choose care approaches without so much guessing. However, I do think love and instinct will always have a role.


    For more information about Carol go to www.mindingourelders.com or www.mindingoureldersblogs.com.  


Published On: December 18, 2010