Brain changes: Are there connections between dementia and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)?

Every time I spend time with my mother now, I see increasing signs of her slipping away from me. Our conversations aren’t as friendly and light. Her affect seems flat. I feel no joy there. The mother I remember is absent. She refuses to wear her hearing aid, so it’s difficult to tell how much she is taking in of our conversations. She refuses to see a neurologist about these changes. I am left wondering how long she will be able to engage fully with us.

Alzheimer’s disease of course comes to mind. Five million Americans now suffer from Alzheimer’s. It is the most common form of dementia.

According to Alz.org, symptoms may include:

  • Increased memory loss and confusion.
  • Inability to learn new things.
  • Difficulty with language and problems with reading, writing, and working with numbers.
  • Difficulty organizing thoughts and thinking logically.
  • Shortened attention span.
  • Problems coping with new situations.

“The future ain’t what it used to be…” – Yogi Berra

These thoughts lead naturally into wondering about myself after one moderate traumatic brain injury (TBI) and a few concussions. Every brain injury is different depending on what part of the brain is damaged and how severely. In my case, I have had concussions before and after my TBI. The later one is probably a result of losses in coordination.

According to a study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information:

“Traumatic brain injury remains a major problem in modern societies, primarily as a consequence of traffic crashes and falls. In the United States alone, an estimated 1.7 million people sustain a TBI annually, of which 275,000 require hospitalization and 52,000 die.”

Moderate to severe traumatic brain injuries

Moderate to severe traumatic brain injuries can include any of the signs and symptoms of mild injury, as well as these symptoms that may appear within the first hours to days after a head injury:

Physical symptoms

  • Loss of consciousness from several minutes to hours
  • Persistent headache or headache that worsens
  • Repeated vomiting or nausea
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Dilation of one or both pupils of the eyes
  • Clear fluids draining from the nose or ears
  • Inability to awaken from sleep
  • Weakness or numbness in fingers and toes
  • Loss of coordination

Cognitive or mental symptoms

  • Profound confusion
  • Agitation, combativeness or other unusual behavior
  • Slurred speech
  • Coma and other disorders of consciousness

Over the past 30 years, research has linked moderate and severe TBI to a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia, years after the original head injury. According to recent studies,

“Individuals who have had a head injury of sufficient severity to result in loss of consciousness were at approximately 50% increased risk of dementia compared with others.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3716376/

Now you see why I continue to read, write, think, watch Jeopardy! and exercise as much as possible…

My Love Letter to Colorado

The Flatirons in the 1960s from Crossroads Mall, our favorite place to shop!

I was introduced to Colorado at the ripe old age of twelve when my Dad decided to take a new job in Boulder. A move from Emporia Kansas to this mecca of hippie culture in 1966 moved me fast forward into a new way of seeing. I’ll never forget the time some guy on “The Hill” offered me acid at age thirteen. I much preferred candy at The Country Store on Broadway at that age. For us the culture shock was just beginning!

A couple years later we moved to Colorado Springs so my Dad could take a job at Colorado College. From one of the national centers of hippie culture to a majorly conservative military town, how shocking for our young, vulnerable minds. Between Fort Carson, The Air Academy, Peterson Air Force Base and NORAD, the military presence was hard to miss, and our teachers in junior high and high school were often retired military officers. My brother John, the natural rebel, had the most trouble with the conservatives there. He got suspended from school for wearing a peace symbol around his neck! We all wore black armbands when members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of Kent State University demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine on May 4th 1970. This was the first time I protested anything.

“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio… ” – Crosby, Stills & Nash

Then I went to college for short periods at Colorado College (2 years), University of Northern Colorado (1 semester) and CU-Boulder in quick succession. What was I seeking? To understand Asia and learn Chinese after living in Bangkok at the end of the Vietnam War.

Over the years after college I lived in Asia, on the West Coast (Seattle), near the East Coast (Cornell University) collecting graduate degrees and worked at a number of university libraries. But Boulder always called me back. I felt safe and comfortable there. After one of my most harrowing years, studying Chinese at the Stanford Center in Taipei, I found myself sitting there wondering where I should move next. I chose Boulder, a place where I always felt safe and comfortable. I ended up with a position at CU-Boulder libraries for a few years.

Mount Blanc Fall of 2018

So really the theme of my life has been, go out and explore the world, then return to Colorado for safety and reassurance…

The crowning glory of my love for Colorado has been our move six years ago down to the foothills west of Walsenburg. With an astounding view of the Spanish Peaks and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, out in the country, far from all people noise, that’s the Colorado I love best! I have climbed peaks, run rivers. even biked a few off-road trails, but now I’m happy just looking outside and dreaming of past adventures…

“The world is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” – W.B. YEATS

Winter Solstice 2020

Tomorrow, Monday the 21st will be the darkest day of our year. This is the day with the fewest hours of daylight, marking the start of astronomical winter. After this solstice, days will begin getting longer and nights shorter as spring approaches.

The word solstice is derived from the Latin word sol (“sun”) and sistere (“to stand still”), because at the solstices, the Sun appears to stand still. The seasonal movement of the Sun’s daily path (as seen from Earth) pauses at a northern or southern limit before reversing direction.

The Winter Solstice in Human History

The winter solstice was a special moment in the annual cycle for most ancient cultures back to the neolithic. Astronomical events were often used to guide activities, such as the sowing of crops and the monitoring of winter food reserves. Many cultural mythologies and traditions are derived from this.

This is attested to by physical remains in the layouts of some ancient archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in England and ceremonial structures in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. The primary axis of these monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise and the winter solstice sunset at Stonehenge.

In the midst of gathering darkness, light becomes ever more valued…

The winter solstice was immensely important, because the Ancient ones were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons. Starvation was common during the first months of the winter, January to April (northern hemisphere) or July to October (southern hemisphere), also known as “the famine months.” In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast, before deep winter began. Most domestic animals were slaughtered because they could not be fed during the winter, so it was the only time of year when a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready to drink at this time.

For me, this Winter Solstice has even more meaning, following one of the worst years in American history. This Solstice gives me hope that next year will be so much better in so many important ways! 🙂

A Lifetime of Christmases!

Yesterday, at the end of our annual viewing of “Polar Express” I was unexpectedly overwhelmed with memories, both recent and long ago. What is it about Christmas?

In our family, I was always the one who insisted that we do it up right, while my Dad protested. We weren’t religious, so why celebrate Christmas? To this day, I don’t know why I insisted, but I’m still glad I did. I believe we all need rituals in our lives, a special way of marking and recognizing the ways we grow and change through the years and decades.

This year I especially feel my history from childhood on up, and I miss my Dad very much. Even though he could be an old stick-in-the-mud at Christmas, he was always there.

Soon we will put up our tree and I will probably cry when I look through my special decorations which mark and celebrate the many years of my life. So many memories, some harsh, some jubilant. Such is life!

Surprise! I’m looking forward to Christmas!

This is the time of year I usually post my “I’m beginning to dread a lot about Christmas” post. Once those ubiquitous commercials begin, I start complaining. But this year feels different. I’m anxious to get our tree cut (from our own land!) and decorated, and I’ve ordered just a few small, special gifts online. I wonder why…

I think it’s because of the tough past few years. I know I was too depressed last Christmas to decorate the tree. My health has been a constant concern for a few years now. When you’ve been consistently healthy for most of your life up until around age 60, and then you keep having serious new ailments turn up, it’s disconcerting to say the least. The one I fought the hardest was going on fulltime oxygen. I simply could not believe it, and I also didn’t want to! It’s terribly cumbersome, expensive and irritating. Try fixing dinner while trailing around an O2 tube. But I did somehow adjust after a couple bad falls and much difficult breathing convinced me.

Funny how illness may help one appreciate things in whole new ways. When you are no longer so certain that you will be here for Christmas next year, you see things differently. Now I want to enjoy every little detail. Oxygen tube or not, I want to be present for every moment now.

A New Thanksgiving Gratitude Challenge!

I have been making Thanksgiving dinner for so many friends and family for most of the past fifty years of my life. It usually turns into a bit of a stress-fest trying to get everything done and on the table at the same time. When it’s time to make the gravy I am usually at wit’s end and exhausted! I guess I should add I am very controlling and bossy in the kitchen…

So last night Mike laid down this challenge to me: Let him do it all. He has done it before, before he met me, he reassured me. This blew my mind as I started taking it in fully. Could I let go of that much control? Could I trust him to do it right? This all blew my mind, because it showed me exactly what a control freak I still am. Did I trust Mike to do it well and do it “right?”

Of course, we do need to take into consideration that I am now on oxygen fulltime and even then sometimes short of breath. Since I first saw it, I have related too well to that new anti-smoking ad about starting in October if you are in charge of fixing Thanksgiving dinner this year. I have to admit it made me laugh because that was me! And no, I never did smoke, just crappy lungs, which no MDs so far can figure out.

As it turns out, I cannot turn the whole affair over to Mike, but he will be doing most of the work. I feel I need to make my cornbread dressing and the pie. Funny how we slowly give up control, and only when it becomes almost impossible to do it all yourself!

Now for one of my favorite stories about Thanksgiving. When I was in my late 20s I went to Taipei Taiwan to study Chinese language at the Stanford Center. Thanksgiving can be tough in a place where nobody even knows what a pumpkin or a turkey are. Soon after I got there in September, my grandmother died and I could not go home for her funeral. My brother-in-law did something really kind for me that year. He had his grade school kids make me Thanksgiving cards and sent them to me. They were all so cute and welcome, but one of them still comes to my memory every year.

This kid had drawn a turkey and along the bottom he wrote the words:

“I am a turkey too yum yummy yum yum!”

to be sung to the tune of Little Drummer Boy!

“I am grateful for what I am and have. My Thanksgiving is perpetual.” — Henry David Thoreau

Feel Gratitude While You Can!

Today I feel like I am seeing my world with new eyes. I am so glad to wake up this morning in such a beautiful place. In fact, I’m grateful to wake up at all! In a world full of death and grief, I do not find it at all difficult to isolate and wait for better days.

I have a warm, safe home with astounding mountains and cloudscapes outside my door!

On television I hear how difficult these times are for others, how different their lives have become. But when I look at my own life I see bright sun in the morning pouring through my windows, warming my home and my heart. I have plenty of time to enjoy the lovely silence, my avocations and my relationships with my family and friends.

When I see clearly, which is much more often since I got rid of my cataracts, I feel so much gratitude for it all!

Glow with gratitude and see how awe and joy make their home in you.

“Make yourself useful!” A post for overly responsible boomers

Two themes have been competing in my brain for decades:

Do we need to “make ourselves useful” all the time? Or is it OK to simply relax and enjoy our lives?

Let me begin by acknowledging that I was brainwashed as a child that everything we do should be “useful.” Laziness was not allowed, and laziness was very broadly defined. Pursuits like games, art, music, cinema, anything that was simply pleasurable and not academically motivated was a waste of time. Productivity was key, but only certain types of productivity. Now I find some of these same strict definitions among my fellow Boomers, who are having trouble getting comfortable with aging, illness and retirement.

First of all, I have studied the psychology of American boomers for years. One conclusion I came to is that we have been identified unfairly as an extremely self-centered and irresponsible generation. The boomers I know are now taking care of their parents if they are still alive, environmentally aware and responsible, and feel a strong need to feel useful in this world. That flower child, druggy image does not stick. Perhaps we are more self-aware than our parents, and more aware of our impact on this planet, but totally irresponsible, no.

Speaking for myself, I grapple daily with guilt over my own idleness even though I also struggle with hypoxia and the long-term affects of a traumatic brain injury. Besides the usual, “Why me?” questions, I feel lazy if I cannot complete at least a few household chores every day. Guilt feels like a permanent companion to my illnesses. Luckily my husband Mike is the direct opposite of my inner critic. He encourages me to feel good about simply still being here, and helps me make the most of it. He keeps our vehicles and home running smoothly…

while encouraging me to focus on hobbies that give me pleasure like photography,

gardening,

cooking and writing this blog.

Mike also understands my struggle with every day guilt, partially because he was not raised that way. He believes that retirement should be joyful and guilt-free. He believes we earned it “after slaving away our entire working life!” I can learn a lot from him.

How to cheer yourself up!

Here it is 2020 World Mental Health Day in the midst of too many good reasons to feel bad. Mental health is one of the most neglected areas of public health. Close to 1 billion people are living with a mental disorder, 3 million people die every year from the harmful use of alcohol and one person dies every 40 seconds by suicide. And now, billions of people around the world have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is having a further impact on people’s mental health.

Five Warning Signs of Mental Illness

Long-lasting sadness or irritability.

Extremely high and low moods.

Excessive fear, worry, or anxiety.

Social withdrawal.

Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits.

Unfortunately, I have plenty of experience with these signs, but that also means I have experience in dealing with them successfully. After years of depression, five years of great counseling in my thirties, and a degree in counseling psychology, I have learned how to take better care of my own mental health. That is not to say I don’t have my down days, especially under the present circumstances!

Here are some ways I have learned to combat the blues:

Never underestimate the power of finding a GREAT therapist. I know it isn’t easy shopping for the best therapist for you when you feel bad, but trust your feelings in selecting the right person to help you over this difficult time in your life.

Mental health days have been important to me throughout my life. While in therapy and feeling deeply sad about understanding my past, my therapist encouraged me to take a day off now and then to be with my feelings. This was essential in helping me feel better. I was severely co-dependent at that time. I remember one day I said to my therapist I felt bad about feeling sorry for myself. She quickly responded with:

“At least you are feeling something for yourself!”

Then, when you start feeling better, start taking mental health days to celebrate feeling better! A few times I needed to call in and say: “I’m feeling too good to come to work today!” No not really, but that’s the way I felt… I remember one day I went out and bought myself some great new furniture. Now, every time I look at that dresser, I remember how great it made me feel to give myself a nice gift.

These days I have been trying a new affirmation out. Every morning when I wake up the first thing I see is my little sign across the room that says:

Today I’m going to love my life!

I find that when I focus on what I am grateful for, I truly have so many reasons to love my life. Consider the fact that we are alive in a great country at one of the BEST times in human history. At least you weren’t born in the 17th century, when “life was nasty, short and brutal.” Today many Americans have the opportunity to live long, pain-free lives. We have the benefits of medicine and science helping us to improve our lives and the lives of others. LUCKY US! We truly do have good reasons to love our lives, and if we don’t we are quite free to change them! This is what I learned from my own midlife crisis. Whatever you are not changing, you are choosing.

If none of this works, try chocolate. It works for me!

You’ve got to go crazy sometimes, or you might go crazy!

The history of human use of psychoactive plants: See “The Stoned Ages” and learn more!

Have you ever thought you would like to learn more about the history of the use of psychoactive plants and botanicals in world history? I just saw a GREAT film about this on the History Channel this week!

Here’s few fun facts from this documentary:

From the beginning of the human race to the present, the human race has been using plants to feel better. From early man (& women), the Egyptians, and the Mayans (Pre-Columbian societies) there has been a constant search for medicinal plants. For example, the Mayans were quite familiar with plants in their environment. They regularly used tobacco in enemas, (bowel is blood rich) and ritual practices. Another example, their use of a solution with ayahuasca done in the presence of a Shaman. It’s purpose was to create a heightened perception of reality, creating a visionary state where one might commune with the gods. They believed these plant rituals gave them a unique gateway to the spiritual realm and the substances used were sacred tools to help them connect. They also used performance enhancing drugs in sports and many other pharmaceutical products.

The Ancient Greeks, especially the philosophers, used pharmaceuticals to create altered states, have out-of-body experiences and to journey to other worlds to meet their gods. Mushrooms and ergot (barley fungus) were used with no moral stigma, with the full realization that plants can heal and harm us. Drugs were about pleasure in the right circumstances and context, not about right and wrong. They felt, if the people were using plants to experience a union with God, what did they need with organized religion?

The Age of Religious Judgment: The Christians

After the Romans were converted to Christianity, their use of psychotropic substances became illegal. Early Christian history shows anxiety and suspicion when it came to pleasures of the body. According to them, faith in Christ is the only road to salvation, therefore an interest in alternative realities became a problem. The sense of puritanical self-denial was an important part of early Christian views. Denial of the pleasures of the body was essential in conversion to Christian spirituality, and this became the dominant value system in the West.

The Age of Discovery

Exploration of new worlds led to the discovery of new psychotropic substances, for example tobacco and cannibis. Since most drugs come from plants, international travel led to a confluence of drug products transferred to Europe in the early modern world. In addition, with the introduction of tobacco to the New World, came a new way to administer drugs, by smoking them… What did the term “patent medicines” mean in the 1800s in the USA? It meant they didn’t need to tell you what was in them. “Medicines” like morphine, cocaine, heroin, and aspirin.

Drink your Coca-Cola and you’ll feel so much better!

How has our society defined some psychoactive plants as “medicines” through the ages, and others as bad for you? Learn more by watching this documentary: