Roger Anunsen: The science of the aging brain

By Laura Fosmire, July 31, 2014

Over the course of his life, Roger Anunsen has been and done many things: A lawyer, teacher, activities director for a local assisted-living home.

Roger AnunsenHe’s also been a pioneer in the field of brain science, particularly as it applies in aging. And as one of this year’s speakers at TEDxSalem, he’s going to give a glimpse into the future of how science will alter its understanding of aging in the brain.

Anunsen, a Salem native who can trace his Oregon roots back to his great-grandparents, started his career as an attorney. After graduating from law school at Willamette University, he went on to work with the Linn County public defenders, building a 26-year career in trial law.

But 1998, he says, was the year of the burnout.

“I was trying to work harder instead of smarter,” he said. “I was working longer and longer and I lost my passion for law.”

Anunsen took a job a few days a week driving a van with an assisted-living facility in Salem. Not long after that, he was asked if he wanted to take over as activities director  a job, he was delighted to find, he loved.

“I just treated them all like my Nana,” he said. “I learned from my grandmother, when you ask someone who is older ‘How are you?’ it’s a dead-end question.”

By that, he means, is that asking someone how they are tends to elicit what Anunsen calls The Organ Recital: A listing of complaints of the various aches and pains that accompany growing older. When your first response is such a negative focus, he explains, it releases a chemical in the human body that just makes it worse.

Instead, he began building activities to shift the focus to fun, confidence-building activities.

“I was just trying to find something to keep their attention,” he said. “I would just keep what worked and threw out what didn’t.”

His techniques drew the attention of a graduate student who happened to be in the building, who then went on to tell their professor. Before long, Anunsen said, groups of academics were coming to study what he was doing.

“They asked me, if we did clinical trials, would you be willing?” he remembered. “I didn’t even know what a clinical trial was.”

Now, Anunsen is teaching courses at Portland Community College; he’s worked for AARP designing brain health programs and was a voting delegate at the White House Conference on Aging; he’s even had a scientific paper published in the Journal of Mental Health and Aging.

“It’s exciting, and it seems to be getting better,” he said. “It’s harder than rocket science, but once you boil it down, it’s just getting back control.”

Anunsen keeps up-to-date on the latest research being published on the subject. Just a few weeks ago, there was a particularly thrilling announcement made at a global brain science conference that he said fits in nicely with his TED talk — but you’ll have to hear him explain it.

“Knowledge is power,” he said, when asked what he hopes people will gain from his TED talk. “And cognitive decline is not  bold, underlined  inevitable. There needs to be a national policy to educate the public.”

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