When considering the dangers of nuclear war, Albert Einstein said, “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” Ending the Alzheimer’s epidemic also requires thought that is far more advanced than our current understanding of the disease.
Fortunately there are some great minds working to unlock the mysteries of dementia. Last week I interviewed Dr. Virginia M-Y Lee, director of the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Lee is an extraordinary dementia detective who has spent years studying the nature of tau and other proteins that accumulate in brains plagued by Alzheimer’s. Her discoveries have helped identify new paths for research that may guide development of improved treatment.
Although Dr. Lee’s ranks among world experts in her field, I did not meet her to discuss scientific research. I talked with her to learn more about her practice of meditation as a form of self-care. Since studying mindfulness meditation in 2006, Dr. Lee has been using this technique to help reduce stress and its negative impact on her own health. Her preferred form of mindfulness meditation is taught at the University of Pennsylvania as a healing strategy for people struggling with stress and illness — including Alzheimer’s.
Professor Lee’s meditation practice — like other aspects of her life — conflicts with our stereotype of the “typical” scientist. Dr. Lee’s early years, as described in an article by Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay of the AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR BIOCHEMISTRY AND MOLECULAR BIOLOGY, were spent in southwest China. When she reached the age of five, Dr. Lee’s family moved her to Hong Kong where she remained until 1962. She left then to study piano at London’s Royal Academy of Music. When approaching college age, she decided to switch her studies to science, eventually earning an undergraduate degree in chemistry. At the master’s level, her interests shifted again — this time to biochemistry. Pursuit of further education moved her through academic programs in San Francisco, the Netherlands, and Harvard.
This incredible career path pushed Dr. Lee to become fluent in many languages including Chinese, English, music, and the advanced vocabulary of science. While her diverse education helped her become a formidable champion in the effort to end Alzheimer’s, it also fostered her ability to think across traditional boundaries that often separate art and science, East and West.
The breadth of her knowledge has indeed elevated Dr. Lee’s thinking to the level Einstein prescribed for solving global problems. For those of us who are not world class scientists, Dr. Lee also recognizes our need to manage stress driven by our relationship with dementia. After years of extraordinary accomplishment, she uncovered a deep truth that applies equally to professors and caregivers, “You must come to terms with the level of responsibility you carry in life.” She observes that we often take on more and more tasks without ever noticing that we’re asking ourselves to do too much. We can’t forget, she warns, that we must care for ourselves if we really want to help others. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be talking with others like Dr. Lee who are using new techniques like mindfulness to manage the stress of lives touched by dementia. Stay tuned.