Feelings Last Longer Than Memories in Dementia

Elderly man interacting with a baby
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If you're ever tempted to skip that visit to the person who has dementia because he'll just forget about it anyway, think again. Research published in the journal Cognitive & Behavioral Neurology demonstrated that emotions that are stirred up in people with dementia last longer than the memory of what elicited those emotions. In other words, your visit (or interaction) can make a lasting difference in his day, even if he can't remember it.

These same researchers conducted a similar study a few prior to this study with people who had hippocampal amnesia (a condition that causes memory loss) and found a similar pattern of responses.

The Study

The researchers conducted a study involving 17 people (11 women and 6 men) with probable Alzheimer's disease and 17 people whose cognitive abilities were intact. The participants first completed an assessment of their emotional state, and then they were shown a series of movie clips containing themes of sadness and loss for about 18 minutes.

After the movies ended, the participants' feelings were evaluated multiple times- immediately after the viewing, about 10-15 minutes after the viewing and about 20-30 minutes after viewing the film clips. Their memory of the film clips was also tested five minutes after the film viewing ended and included an assessment of their free recall ability, verbal recognition, and facial recognition.

Following a short break, this procedure was repeated with a series of film clips depicting themes of happiness.

The Results

As expected, the participants with Alzheimer's demonstrated a significant impairment in their memory of the films. In fact, one participant didn't even recall watching the film clips when asked about the sad session of films.

After watching the movies, both the participants with Alzheimer's and those with normal cognition expressed similar emotional responses to the films, demonstrating intact emotional reactions despite their memory loss.

Even up to 30 minutes after the film session, participants with Alzheimer's continued to feel the feelings triggered by the sad and happy film clips, with the sad films showing a slightly longer effect on emotions. Interestingly, feelings of sadness remained the longest time for those with the poorest memories of the clips.

The Take-Away

How we interact with people who have dementia is critically important. The researchers emphasized that people with dementia who experience poor treatment or abuse may have a lingering emotional response of sadness and anger even when they can't remember or explain why they feel that way. The flip-side is true as well- that as caregivers and loved ones, our positive interactions can potentially change the course of the day for people with dementia by providing lasting positive emotions.

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Article Sources

  • Cognitive & Behavioral Neurology: September 2014 - Volume 27 - Issue 3 - p 117-129. Feelings Without Memory in Alzheimer Disease.