Building Healthy Caregivers

Sometimes you have to hear a message many times before you really get it. After talking with experts like Dr. Michael Baime and reading the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, I now see why it’s crucial for caregivers and dementia patients to do activities that protect the hippocampus region of their brain.

Caregiver health

Research shows that the hippocampus  plays an important role in consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory. We have two hippocampi, one on each side of the brain.  They display the earliest signs of damage when Alzheimer’s disease attacks.

The work of Baime and Kabat-Zinn has shown that a regular meditation practice can actually promote growth of grey matter in this brain region which is so essential to preserving memories. This week my regular news scan led me to another article, by Margery Rosen, stating that physical exercise has also been shown to boost the size and vitality of the hippocampus. Rosen writes in the AARP report that, “Scientists think exercise boosts the flow of blood to certain parts of the brain, spurring the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) …[which] stimulates the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus….At the same time, [BDNF] repairs cell damage and strengthens synapses, or the connections between brain cells.”

The effects of exercise can be significant, even if you are older or were not physically active earlier in life. A study from the Archives of Internal Medicine found that 70- to 80-years-old women who already had symptoms of mild cognitive impairment, had better focus and decision-making skills after doing one to two hours of weight training two days a week for six months. Rosen also quotes Kirk Erickson, neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author of the exercise study, as saying, “This was the first time that we were able to demonstrate that you can actually increase the size of the hippocampus…People need to know that dementia is not inevitable.”

While his comment on inevitability may be an overstatement, these two research studies give us plenty of reasons to try to fit these two activities into our busy lives. It looks like 15 minutes of morning meditation — and a 30-minute walk before dinner — could drastically improve the lives we lead 20 years from now.

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