Now imagine you have Alzheimer’s, and three of those synapses are damaged or destroyed. You still have a way to detour the wreckage. You can still remember my name. So we can be resilient to the presence of Alzheimer’s pathology through the recruitment of yet-undamaged pathways. And we create these pathways, this cognitive reserve, by learning new things.
Ideally, we want these new things to be as rich in meaning as possible, recruiting sight and sound and associations and emotion. So this really doesn’t mean doing crossword puzzles. You don’t want to simply retrieve information you’ve already learned, because this is like traveling down old, familiar streets, cruising neighborhoods you already know.
You want to pave new neural roads. Building an Alzheimer’s-resistant brain means learning to speak Italian, meeting new friends, reading a book, or listening to a great TED Talk.
And if, despite all of this, you are someday diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, there are three lessons I’ve learned from my grandmother and the dozens of people I’ve come to know living with this disease.
Diagnosis doesn’t mean you’re dying tomorrow. Keep living. You won’t lose your emotional memory. You’ll still be able to understand love and joy.
You might not remember what I said five minutes ago, but you’ll remember how I made you feel. And you are more than what you can remember.