How does dementia affect the brain?

Dementia Action Week 16-22 May

Led by the Alzheimer’s Society, Dementia Action Week sees the public come together to improve the lives of people affected by dementia.

Here’s a little analogy to help understand how short term (recent) and long-term memory are affected by dementia and how it affects our emotions.

A library dedicated to you

Imagine a person who is 70 years of age. They are stood next to a bookcase that is the same height as the person. It is a very special bookcase because it holds all the facts about that individual’s life that they have gathered over the years.

Each fact or memory is represented by a book and they all form parts of that person’s life such as skills they have learned.

The top shelf hold the latest books/memories such as things like what you had for breakfast. The shelf by the person’s shoulders holds maybe memories of retiring back in their 60s.

Going further down the shelf to maybe the person’s knees is their 20s. This may be memories of early careers they had or meeting their partner. The bottom shelf will contain the early memories from childhood such as starting school.

Dementia’s effect on the bookshelf

Now picture that dementia has come along and started to rock the bookcase from side to side. Like all bookcases this happens to, books get jumbled, they fall, or they get damaged. To someone living with dementia, their books will fall from the top where the most recent memories are kept.

As dementia continues to rock the person’s bookcase over time, their upper shelves will empty. What that person then thinks of as a recent memory will actually be from further back in their life.

This means that the individual may well remember things from their childhood clearly, because those books are safe on the bottom shelf. It won’t be as easy to remember the most recent memories such as what they had for breakfast because this book has fallen from the top shelf.

The other side to the story

The brain is made up of more than one bookcase. There is a second bookcase, which stores all the feelings and emotions a person can experience. It is a much stronger and heavier bookcase. This means dementia has a harder time trying to shake this bookcase so the books containing all the feelings and emotions are much safer.

Each book on the factual bookcase (the case with all the memories, skills and facts) has a matching book on the emotional bookcase. For example, a person may have a book on one of their teachers, which has details like what that teacher looked like and how long they taught the person.

Over on the emotional bookcase, it has a matching book with the feelings for that teacher such as they were the person’s favourite teacher, they inspired them, or they were funny.

So, the person in their 70s is stood next to their bookcases. Imagine their grandchild has come to visit them and they go for a nice day out together. They have a walk near the beach and an ice cream.

This day makes the person living with dementia feel loved and very happy which creates a new book on the emotional bookcase.

At the end of the day, dementia has rocked the flimsy factual bookcase, which has caused the book with the memory of the nice day out to fall off. Even though the memory of that day out with their grandchild has gone, the happy feeling and the feeling of being loved is still there and will remain next time that person sees their grandchild again.

Something to be mindful of

When you spend time with someone living with dementia, they may not remember everything you’ve done together or where you’ve been. This is not their fault that the books have fallen out of the shelves, this is just the way the condition affects their memory.

All that person will know is that they feel happy because of the time they have spent with you. This is so important that people continue to spend time with those living with dementia to help them live well.

It is also very important to remember not to get cross or upset if someone with dementia forgets things. How that person is feeling is more important than getting the facts right.