I am a very practical person.   The realities of everyday life and the needs of my forgetful clients keep my focus on short-term memory.    Short-term memory is the ability to learn new information and works by the One Minute Rule (entries in the calendar, Post-It notes, alarms, taking notes).  It is not like a muscle.  You can’t exercise it to make it better.  Short-term memory is essential to any program of memory improvement or maintenance.  Managing short-term memory is necessary but not sufficient for treating Alzheimer’s disease.

But memory is much richer than just short-term memory.  Whereas short-term memory adds more threads and details to the tapestry of memory, long-term memory is the evolving tapestry of color, dimension, and passion that adds quality to life – even for those who are forgetful.

Long-term memory does work like a muscle.  The more you use it the better it gets (as long as short-term memory keeps working) but strengthening it does not help short-term memory.  Long-term memory holds routines (e.g., dressing, reading, doing crossword puzzles, using a computer), the core of personal history (e.g., birth date, social security number, date of my wedding), knowledge, expertise, and self – the essence of who I am.  It is the source of alertness and passion.

Long-term memory works well into and is the mainstay for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. As short-term memory weakens, we rely more and more on long-term memory to sustain and enrich life.

Sadly, art has largely been neglected in memory research.  We are so infatuated by computers and technology that we lose sight of the power of the arts to provide mental stimulation and engagement.  Why aren’t there studies comparing the relative merits of playing the piano, listening to a live symphony, painting, sculpting, or creating a memoir to computer programs and brain exercises?  The arts build brain circuits and stimulate the brain as well as do computer programs or crossword puzzles.  The arts feed passions in those with Alzheimer’s disease as well as in those who have normal memory.

I was especially moved by an 80-year-old client who came to me sobbing “I am so depressed because I am demented.”  I asked her for details.  The retirement community where she resides purchased a computer program to “enhance the mental fitness” of their residents.  She had religiously used the program for a month and was unable to improve and was still forgetful.  The failure was devastating.  She did have mild Alzheimer’s disease but still was able reside in her apartment.

As we pursued possible solutions, I asked what she loves to do.  She loved participating in programs and events at the Phil and the museum.   She didn’t understand that feeding these interests also strengthened her brain.  The treatment was simple and effective.  Stop doing the computer program and step up time at the Phil.  She was so relieved.

There are so many examples: the resident in a skilled nursing home who came to life with music, the 97 year old who didn’t know who I was after several meetings but still played concert level piano ….   Don’t neglect the arts when you put together your brain stimulation/fitness program.