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Learning to Deal with Alzheimer’s

By Chad Estes

Just like the rest of our bodies, our brains change as we age. Some of those changes can be good – some of those changes aren?t so good.

In terms of our cognitive functioning, most folks will eventually notice some slowed thinking and experience occasional problems with remembering certain things. According to Vincent Fortanasce, MD, clinical professor of neurology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and author of The Anti-Alzheimer?s Prescription, mental agility begins to decline around age 24. But there is a big difference between agility and capacity. While you might be a bit slower, your capacity to learn new things continues to increase with age.

However, serious memory loss, confusion and other major changes in the way our minds work may be a sign that brain cells are failing. I know of this all too well. At a very young age, I had the experience of watching my grandfather slowly succumb to the effects of Alzheimer?s disease.

Until recently, it was thought that our brains were complex, hard-wired computers. What we were born with was all we got. Those in the medical profession held the view that age wore down memory and the ability to understand, and few interventions could reverse this process. This is proving to be wrong.

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests physical and mental exercise can alter specific brain regions, making radical improvements in cognitive function possible. According to Fred Gage, researcher at the Salk Institute, there is concrete evidence that neurogenesis (the creation of new brain cells) occurs in adult brains well into our 80?s!

When you challenge the brain with learning new ways of doing things and new skills altogether, connections between cells in the brain increase. This is part of the ?brain plasticity? process, and it means that our brains change as a result of our experience. And while you cannot reverse the aging process, or the progress of Alzheimer?s disease, applying this knowledge can have a profound impact on someone?s quality of life.

According to Anat Baniel, an internationally recognized expert in the field of movement and how it relates to brain plasticity, she has identified what she calls the ?Nine Essentials? – the conditions that your brain requires in order to flourish. Those essentials are: moving with attention; turning on the ?learning switch?; experiencing subtlety; breaking harmful habits through variation; living more slowly; setting flexible goals; firing enthusiasm; using the imagination; and cultivating awareness.

In my work, physical and mental exercise is often one in the same ? and I use the term ?exercise? loosely ? it would be more appropriate to use the phrase movement with attention. Exercise, while good for us, does little to stimulate the brain plasticity process. When careful, directed attention is applied to our movements and the way in which we do things, that?s when our ?learning switch? gets turned on.

While I work with movement, my intention is to tap into the inherent intelligence of our brain and nervous system and provide it the information necessary to do its job better. And for each of my clients, that could look very different – as similar as we all are, we are all very, very different.

For the children with special needs that I work with, it could be providing their nervous system the information that it needs in order to learn how to roll over, sit up, crawl, etc. For the person who comes to me with chronic pain, I want to provide them experiences that enable them to learn how to move more easily, with less effort, which in turn helps their chronic pain begin to disappear.

For a person with Alzheimer?s, I do whatever is necessary to keep them involved in the learning process. And for all of those mentioned above, it is through a movement based learning approach.

In an article published in Alzheimer?s Care Quarterly (2006; 7 [4], 278?86), the author states that the Feldenkrais Method may improve quality of life for those with Alzheimer?s and enable them to learn new habits.

According to Joyce Ann, a registered and licensed occupational therapist and a guild-certified Feldenkrais practitioner, who teaches Awareness Through Movement? classes at The Wealshire Nursing Facility in Lincolnshire, Illinois:

?Since the Feldenkrais Method changes an individual?s habits, the results of [teaching movement awareness] can produce positive and lasting results through the individual?s capacity for procedural learning.?

Procedural memory, also referred to as ?non-declarative memory,? is learning by doing and includes repetitive activities, habits and motor learning.

So, by involving those affected with Alzheimer?s in this ?learning by doing? approach, and by applying Anat Baniel?s Nine Essentials to the process, we can provide the conditions necessary for the brain to do its job to the best of its ability ? regardless of the limitations that are present.

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