Alissa Butts is a neuropsychologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. She recently helped get the HABIT Program going again in Minnesota as one of the therapists and trainers. I had the pleasure of talking to her about this experience, as well as learning a little bit more about her in general.
Miranda Morris: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Alissa Butts: I have an older brother, and I used to play with him and his friends all the time. The first thing I remember wanting to be when I grew up was a NBA basketball player (this was before the WNBA). While I did play sports growing up and even a little in college, I never came close to playing in the NBA! Luckily, I also remember early on wanting to be a scientist, which is more in line with where I ended up.
MM: What is your favorite thing about the HABIT Program?
AB: The people. It is such a treat to get to work with the couples for 2 weeks straight, especially those I get to work with during the calendar training sessions. I love working with them to establish their goals for the program and share in their excitement when they start meeting those goals. It is also such an honor to witness some of the moments during the program when the couple’s reconnect with one another in the face of this challenging illness and you can see the love between them grow stronger. Their smiles and laughter together make my day!
MM: What’s your favorite tip for de-stressing?
AB: Get moving! Even if I can feel the stress building at work, as soon as I can I try to get out of my office and go for a walk around the halls of the hospital or outside if the sun is shining. Stepping away and going for a brisk walk helps clear my mind and lower my stress. When I have a little more time, after worker on the weekends, I try to go for walks, to the gym, ride my bike, or play team sports with friends. I also appreciate talking with my family because they can always help me see perspective on the situation, even if I’ve lost site of the big picture.
MM: How did you get into studying memory?
AB: I have always been fascinated by the different aspects of human cognition and how sometimes they work and sometimes they do not. My major in college was psychology, but I minored in biology and neuroscience. In graduate school, I worked in a research lab that investigated different types of memory in people who were at risk for Alzheimer’s disease and I have been hooked ever since. Memory is particularly interesting because there are so many different types of memory. For example, in HABIT, we capitalize on procedural memory, or habit memory, because explicit memory is not working as well. I love seeing in HABIT when the people living with MCI have successes with their memory, usually their rich long-term memories that often come out when they generously share stories about their lives.
MM: Tell me a little bit about how you got involved with the HABIT Program.
AB: I first started with the HABIT program working with Dr. Glenn Smith when I was a postdoctoral fellow at Mayo Rochester. I helped during a few HABIT sessions and loved it even more than I anticipated! I was then away from the program for a few years during my first few years of being on staff at Mayo Rochester and involved in other activities. I was lucky enough to be welcomed back by the HABIT team when Dr. Shandera took over as director this year. It has been a very enjoyable experience working with Drs. Shandera and Chandler as I can tell they are so invested in the program, and I appreciate being able to learn from them. One of the great things about HABIT is that it has such a strong foundation and structure, and an eye for always trying to make the program as good as it can be. So, even though I trained with Dr. Smith, the same principles, goals, and strategies apply even now when working with HABIT team members from the other Mayo sites; it is very much one program.
MM: Some of the healthy habits that we talk about in the program include eating well, emotional self-care and getting quality sleep. With such a busy work life, how do you make sure to practice the habits of wellness?
AB: Honestly, this can be pretty challenging at times, which I think can be the case for most of us. During those times when it is particularly challenging, I try to double up wellness goals. For example, I schedule a time for exercise with a friend so that I can also catch up with that friend during our warm up or cool down (and usually also during the work out too!). Or, I’ll meet a friend at the farmer’s market where we pick out fresh fruits and vegetables for the week while catching up with each other. This helps me meet my goals of exercise, social engagement, stress relief, mental sharpness, and nutrition. I also have two sisters who enjoy cooking, so we enjoy talking about and sharing new recipes with one another, and I try to keep an eye out for ones that follow the Mediterranean and MIND diets. I can definitely tell that I do not feel as cognitively sharp when I am not sleeping well. So I try to maintain a pretty consistent sleep schedule, going to bed at the same time and getting up in the morning at the same time aiming for about 9 hours.
MM: What is your favorite thing about living in in Minnesota? Where else have you lived?
AB: I really enjoy the intensity of the 4 seasons. Although I often wish winter was shorter and fall was longer, I try to embrace the winter by doing something new each year. Last winter I went snow shoeing and cross-country skiing for the first time and only fell a couple of times!). This winter, I hope to try downhill skiing for the first time. I grew up in Central Illinois, went to a college in Indiana, Milwaukee Wisconsin for graduate school, and lived in West Virginia for one year before coming to Rochester Minnesota. So as you can see, I am a Midwest girl!