Living in the present moment has benefits far beyond helping you enjoy the beauty and bounty of life; it can also help prevent the onslaught of Alzheimer’s disease
Why do people with Alzheimer’s forget their immediate loved ones — the most precious people in their lives? It’s because Alzheimer’s affects the parts of the brain that deal with recent memory. But what if we better understood the emotional components of this devastating disease, would we be able to actually prevent someone from getting this disease? To answer that question, let’s start by exploring the role “living in the now” and how it plays in our human experience.
Use It or Lose It
It’s easy to feel like we’re moving at fast-forward speed. Whether it’s talking with a friend or watching our kids play, we frequently think about the next thing we have to do rather than enjoy the moment we are in. Many of us are so busy doing what we do, we end up functioning on automatic pilot. When we think mostly about the past or the future as a habit or a modus operandi (way of operating in the world), we aren’t exercising the parts of the brain that deal with now. Knowing this makes us wonder if current memories even get recorded in the brain of a person who has Alzheimer’s.
“What we don’t use, we lose” is a well-accepted adage, which in this discussion means for the brain to function properly, the “living in the now” portion of the brain must be used or its effectiveness gets lost.
Unfortunately, for those who have Alzheimer’s:
- The cortex of their brains has shrunk, damaging tissue that’s involved in thinking, planning and remembering. Shrinkage is especially severe in the hippocampus, an area of the cortex involved in memory forming, organizing, and storing.
- The temporal lobe is damaged, causing disruptions in their ability to accept, organize, and store information. It also causes problems doing verbal coding and processing experiences.
- The frontal lobes aren’t active so information needed to make decisions isn’t being captured or interpreted. As a result, they simply can’t make sense of things.
The Physical Components of the Brain
The hippocampus handles the meaning of things. Its function includes continuity and coherence (in the sense of sequencing events), memory of events, experience of oneself, sense of time, history, tradition, how everything fits together, and so on. One could label it the understanding function. In healthy brains, the hippocampus connects the emotions and senses to remembering.
What happens when people live either mostly in the past or in the future? They tend to vacillate back and forth between the two. This prevents them from experiencing a continuous stream of events and time. With no processing of the ‘now’, the portion of the brain’s emotion system (limbic system) that’s in charge of transferring information into memory has no information to transfer.
If you’re not “living in the now,” it means you don’t experience the emotional aspects of the moment because you’re not fully present. On the physical level, the limbic system does not get exercised thus it has trouble transferring information into memory. This can cause the hippocampus to shrink because it’s not connecting the emotions and senses to memories. Again, it’s not being exercised.
The brain’s temporal lobes are essential for memory. When damage occurs, certain objects might be recognized but there is little or no ability to capture new information and remember it later (a process called encoding). Information that’s properly encoded is easily retrieved.
The emotional component of the temporal lobe affected by Alzheimer’s can be compared to disc failure on a computer. This kind of disc failure disrupts an Alzheimer’s person’s ability to accept, organize, and store information. It also causes problems doing verbal coding and processing.
Even before symptoms can be detected in early stages of Alzheimer’s, plaques and tangles begin to form in the brain areas involved in learning, memory, thinking, and planning. Experiencing a rigid upbringing could produce the hard rigid plaques that form in the Alzheimer’s brain. When such beliefs form a mindset of inflexibility in the brain, they become a way of thinking and can dictate how a person operates through life. This rigidity can set up the hardening of brain tissue even at a young age.
The frontal lobes are considered the emotional control center and home to personality. They’re involved in motor function, problem solving, spontaneity, memory, language, initiation, judgment, impulse control, and social and sexual behavior.
On a physical level, if person’s mindset and MO is “I can’t make sense of things,” it means the frontal lobes of the brain don’t get exercised. That affects one’s ability to capture the information needed to make decisions and to interpret or integrate the information needed to solve problems.
Living in the Now = Healthy Brain
Alzheimer’s ultimately affects all parts of the brain. However, each person experiences different emotional effects as his or her disease’s progresses, but they have one thing in common: They have been set up through programming during one’s upbringing and have become a way of operating through life which can lead to brain dysfunction and eventually to Alzheimer’s.
Those at the end stage of Alzheimer’s disease appear to be in their own ‘private world’— they can’t let themselves out or let others in. So if people aren’t ‘living in the now”’ and being fully present, they are failing to make the strong connections for their neurons to function properly.
Here’s an example of what I mean by ‘living in the now’: On my fast walk every morning, instead of thinking about what I have to do for the day or future commitments, I now hear the birds sing, smell the newly cut grass, and see the beauty of our quaint neighborhood. I feel exhilarated as I imagine my brain being exercised in this way. I’m keeping it healthy. My previous pattern of thinking about the past or the future has been broken as I replace it with greater awareness.
Because nothing exists outside this present moment, thinking about the past or the future helps no one. We can learn to live in the now with a technique called the MO Technique which helps individuals release the emotional component or psychological meaning of the symptoms, conditions, and diseases of their bodies. Specifically, it releases the psychological meaning of symptoms so it no longer affects them and they can avert developing a full-blown disease.
People who mindfully live in the moment tend to be happier, more exuberant, more empathetic, and more secure than those who don’t.
They have higher self-esteem and are more accepting of their own weaknesses. Anchoring awareness in the here and now reduces the kinds of impulsivity and reactivity that underlie depression, binge eating, and attention problems. As a result, mindful people can hear negative feedback without feeling threatened. They fight less with their romantic partners and are more accommodating and less defensive. As a result, mindful couples have more satisfying relationships.
Living in the now is both extremely empowering as well as healthy. When we live in the now, those people who are most precious in our lives will never be forgotten because the ‘now’ is where we live and what we remember. Living in the now can also help prevent one of the most devastating diseases on this planet: Alzheimer’s. As Maria Robinson said, “Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”
Editor’s Note: A more comprehesive version of this article with in-depth medical explanations can be read here.
You may also enjoy reading Just Breathe: Using Breathwork to Reduce Stress, Calm the Mind and Relax the Body by Ana Lilia