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…

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! 🙂

Photos of building passive solar in Colorado in the winter: Deck the roof, not the halls!

My intuition told me to go back and look at some previous photos from six years ago, when we were building our passive solar home in the foothills of southern Colorado. Sure enough, December 17th six years ago was the day we put decking on our roof.

Unless you’ve built something yourself, you may not appreciate the idea of “drying in” your structure, but this is major, especially in the middle of winter in Colorado.

I remember when we drove up here, there were workmen all over the top of our house in very cold weather, working their asses off! Our contractor brought all his friends over to work on a Saturday to get this done. What was amazing was how comfortable they all seemed up on that roof! A snow storm came in later that day…

But the roof got covered and we were halfway to being dried in.

We got so excited about the smallest progress back then, after taking five months just to get approval from the county and our slab poured properly for passive solar heating! They forgot the insulation for the slab at first, but Mike got on them for that!

The windows came next! It was finally looking & feeling like a home!

But there were still a million more details to work out…

but we got her done and moved in on the first of August 2015.

Then we rested while staring out at our spectacular view, for months, none stop! We cannot get enough of this even years later. The silence is magnificent!

Crisis or opportunity? How do we convert our breakdowns into breakthroughs?

Watching the news these days fills me with sadness. I feel like the witness to the worst misfortunes that have befallen this country in my lifetime. Job loss, poverty, hunger, terrible health losses and death, not to mention the worst economy perhaps ever. This is truly a terrible crisis for everyone involved. I do feel badly for those who feel no hope as this year comes to a close. Those of us who now live on Social Security and Medicare are so fortune that we have survived our own crises and lived this long.

When I look back over my own life, I remember when I lost a job, then ran out of unemployment checks, my fears of losing my home and the depression that ensued. This was not so many years ago for me. This was my life in 2004. I remember crying with the counselor at the state employment office, my desperation was that great. Since then I have lost my health to an unidentified problem with my lungs. Mike also almost lost his home when Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) dominated his life in his mid-30s. He had to move out and rent his home so he would not lose it. I would not wish these kinds of crises on anybody. Mike and I do know that hopeless, sinking feeling personally. That is why we give to charities for the hungry and homeless.

What I did when disaster struck was sit down and consider how I would now find a way to land on my feet and avoid future misfortunes. Mike and I feel we both learned a lot from our own crises, things like how to protect our assets, ask for help and find strength inside that we did not know we had. We also learned not to be critical when bad things happen to others. In other words, we learned compassion in place of harsh judgment. We never could have imagined that these crises would happen to us, but they did, so the first goal is to not be too critical of ourselves. We now know that compassion must begin at home and then expand outward to those around us. Judging those who suffer does nothing to help them problem solve. Although it may seem harsh, the Chinese were correct when they combined the characters “danger” and “opportunity” in their word for crisis.

What is this difficult situation teaching me? What opportunities are presented right now for me to benefit from?

If you live through the crisis, you must then struggle to find the opportunity that may be well-hidden in your terrible misfortune. In every crisis there is a message. This is nature’s way of forcing change into our lives. What old structures or ways of thinking need to be reviewed? What bad habits can go so that we can try something different and better? Sometimes life crises require some serious soul searching and surgery to cut out the worst assumptions we have made about ourselves. This can lead to psychological reframing of our problems.

For me, my midlife crisis (divorce, job loss, career loss) led to a brutal analysis of what I needed most in my life to make it worth living. I decided that love was my greatest need and highest priority, and I would need to make some major changes in my heart and mindset to make that happen. I would also need to learn to listen carefully to my intuition, the wisdom inside that had been accumulating for decades. Why had my culture taught me not to listen and believe in these messages? Once I started to listen to them, they came through even more clearly and I followed them. This process led me to a positive career change and love.

Eventually I would appreciate my crisis, because without it I would have never changed so much. Today I’m so glad I got divorced and lost my job. Only then was I ready to accept love and embrace a whole new way of living and loving. I heard the message of my crisis and saw the opportunity within it. Is it time for you to do the same?

I am a trained psychotherapist and have written a few books about how this process works…

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 realistic are our memories of early adulthood?

Now to answer the question: Were we always this stupid, from my last post? The answer is, we were much dumber in high school and college. I have medical proof!

I’ve been reading a FASCINATING BOOK called “The Body” by Bill Bryson. So many new and interesting facts about this crazy body we call home. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT!

For example, one of his most memorable moments while researching this book, was when an English surgeon peeled back a sliver of skin a millimeter thick from the arm of a cadaver for him and said:

“That is where all your skin color is. That’s all that race is – a sliver of epidermis.”

But the section on the brain was even more interesting! Brains have always interested me. But then when I got a couple brain injuries, I became even more focused on learning more about how they work.

OK, so here’s why we did some really stupid things in our teens and early twenties and now remember them far too fondly:

“The brain takes a long time to form completely. A teenager’s brain is only about 80% finished…[and] a region of the forebrain associated with pleasure, grows its largest size in one’s teenage years. At the same time, the body produces dopamine, the neurotransmitter that conveys pleasure, more than it ever will again.”

I knew before that our frontal lobe isn’t fully developed until our twenties, thus less impulse-control, but I have never heard that our teens and twenties were our best chance to experience extreme pleasure. Now, as we age, do you ever wonder if your memory is playing tricks on you? Could those early memories be real? This finding suggests our memories of the best sex in our life in our teens and twenties could be correct! Who knew?

This explains a lot. Memories can be so uncertain and unclear. They can also be manipulated and change through time. So find ways to enjoy your memories, but don’t count on them all being correct.