When I first began learning about dementia prevention last year, I was amazed to discover that brain healthy lifestyle measures are supported by robust science. I couldn’t understand why more people weren’t aware that 1 in 3 cases of dementia can be prevented, when interventions are started 2-3 decades in advance of the earliest symptoms.
It was sobering to realize that many of us may already have physical changes in our brains that are linked to dementia, But also most reassuring to see that pathological changes don’t always translate into dementia. In other words, we are seeing that people can have amyloid plaque and tau tangles in their brain tissue, but that doesn’t mean they for sure manifest clinical dementia.
Science is supposed to deliver up a silver bullet or shot in the arm that will cure diseases
It’s like saying that just because I may have some atherosclerotic plaque in my coronary arteries, that doesn’t mean for sure that I will die of a heart attack. I was so impressed with Dr Richard Isaacson’s work with the free education website Alzheimer’s Universe, that I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. “Hey everyone - it’s not hopeless and we aren’t helpless!!” It seemed like an incredibly hopeful beacon in an otherwise bleak and even terrifying landscape for this devastating disease.
Barriers to optimism
And then I realized how many barriers there were to getting that hopeful message across, such as stigmas associated with talking about dementia. Or even disbelief. My aunt, who had been a dementia caregiver, flat out told me that I shouldn’t give people false hope about prevention. It’s as if some people think that the science sounds too good to be true, and so it will for sure be proven false.
Another barrier is that changing habits takes work. As a society, we have the expectation that science is supposed to deliver up a silver bullet or shot in the arm that will cure diseases. We don’t like to hear that vaccines are not bulletproof protection. Or maybe we aren’t actually willing to do the work to give up some of our vices and engage in brain care.
And what about the fact that we already know about many of these brain healthy habits? For example, we have strong evidence linking physical exercise to improved brain function. But we all already know that exercise is good for us, in terms of weight loss, heart health, and just about everything else. So adding brain health to the long list of benefits doesn’t really feel like news.
What I feel like we don’t hear about is how much our brain chemistry shifts when we exercise. For example when we exercise, we produce brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps us build memory by modulating synaptic growth. No wonder that improvements in both short- and long- term memory, as well as executive function, have consistently been tied to physical training.
You may have seen BDNF sold as an extract of Lion’s Mane mushroom, but it’s not clear if such an isolate can achieve the same benefit as your body’s natural product.
And surely such supplements cannot supply the bonding chemical oxytocin we produce when we experience connection through exercising with others. Nor can any pill or tincture substitute for being in Nature, stimulating feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine during your walk.
Engaging the mind
Yet another barrier is the discipline required to delay short term gratification. We may not feel like turning down that cookie now, for a distant goal of dementia prevention 2-3 decades from now. We tend to think that willpower is the only approach to building discipline, but actually we can learn to reframe our experience through mindset dexterity and to shift our state by redirecting emotions.
For example, I know through experience that eating the cookie will bring me short term pleasure for perhaps a couple of minutes, but then I’ll either be craving another cookie, or I will be feeling bad about eating it. Furthermore, I may experience brain fog or other symptoms. Through mindset dexterity, I get to reframe my experience of having the craving, but NOT giving in to the urge, as FREEDOM. I can learn to tune in to my thoughts and emotions, and choose to be proud of myself for achieving mastery over my primitive brain and habitual responses.
Willpower is not the only approach to building discipline
The Optimal Brain Performance (OBP) program provides a framework for understanding which core lifestyle measures are proven to impact brain health, along with specific content to address our barriers:
Hello Body - our daily essential habits (i.e. exercise, sleep and nutrition) as well as heart healthy habits.
Hello Mind - because habits are hard to establish using willpower alone, we need to engage our personal supercomputers (i.e. our Minds) to help.
Hello Life - broadly encompasses other research involving environmental conditions such as social connection and air pollution, as well as smoking, brain traumatic injury or hearing loss.
Before I got into the brain health space, I believed that there was little or no good news to be had about the future of dementia. But it turns out that there are an abundance of new and exciting discoveries emerging all the time, and a robust community of scientists, educators, family members and caregivers. Brain Health has been a quiet movement, but it is getting louder all the time.
It’s curious to me that we tend to have a pretty good idea of how we are doing in terms of many health parameters, but not so much when it comes to brain health. I developed the Brain Health Index Quiz to map to three broad categories, including current brain function, satisfaction with lifestyle habits, and personal/familial risk factors.
I’m determined that my brain health journey will be filled with fun and excitement
The Quiz is not intended to be a test that can be passed or failed, but instead your score places you into a stage on your brain health journey based on the challenges that you are likely facing, especially in terms of being able to prioritize self care (a.k.a. brain care).
It’s important to note that we are not locked into the Stage where we initially place, the first time that we take the Quiz. It’s quite possible that you may find yourself in Stage 2 one day and Stage 3 the next, because our subjective level of satisfaction, and indeed our brain function can and does vary.
I like to think of my brain health journey as one that is taking me to the celebration of my healthy mind and body at my 100th birthday party. I don’t know if that journey will be one of a thousand steps, or two, or ten thousand steps. And I know that sometimes I will have setbacks, times when I’ve taken 3 steps forward, only to find that I have to take 2 steps back. That’s okay, because I’m learning from setbacks, and learning is how I get to keep growing.
I’m determined that this journey will be filled with fun and excitement. For me, that means stimulating my brain with learning new things, meeting new people and renewing friendships. It means having rich and meaningful conversations, making the world a better place, creating art and touching others in a way that helps them even just a little. I’m going to hold my family close, and am already busy loving on my unborn grandchildren.
And I’m so excited to have you along on this journey with me. Because we can share and support each other along the way, and we will learn more together. As a community, we can create more, touch more lives, and build more strength as a movement.
And because we want to have clarity about what we want the destination to be, we want to spend some time detailing our purpose in life. I like to think of being proud and satisfied with what we have done in our lives so far, while also still leaving plenty of room to grow and do more.
Having the clarity around being healthy of mind and body helps to keep me accountable to my health indicators of movement, sleep and nutrition. My self-coaching and art journaling practice helps to keep me attuned to what is happening at the subconscious level.
I find it helpful to track my satisfaction with each of the major domains of brain health. There are no particular rules as to how this assessment has to look. Like the Quiz, it’s intended to bring your own awareness to how you would assess yourself in each area, as a gut feeling. I’ve learned to lean into my intuition about how I’m doing and what I need, allowing that inner wisdom to guide me in terms of where to focus next.
If you are interested in joining our community to learn more about your brain health, I would encourage you to start by taking the Brain Health Index Quiz.