WELCOME TO OUR SPECIAL ON BRAIN HEALTH
YOU are not stuck with the brain you have. That is the most important information to take away from the experts who share their approaches to brain health over the following pages. The old idea that your brain power peaks in your teens or twenties and then gradually slides into an irreversible decline no longer holds true.
Science now tells us that the brain is an adaptable, dynamic and renewable organ. It responds to what we do, what we think about, what we eat, and what we expose it to — whether that is environmental pollutants or happy thoughts.
In the US and UK a number of experts have taken this a stage further and have developed programmes to enhance brain function, to identify early warning signals or to help reverse the signs of cognitive decline.
Chief among them is Dr Dale Bredesen, Professor of Neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine UCLA, president of the Buck Institute for Research on Ageing and author of a fascinating book, The End of Alzheimer’s (Vermilion, €20.99) which was published last year and has already been translated into 26 languages.
Some people, he says, show the first signs of cognitive decline as early at their forties and fifties. As a result, Dr Bredesen recommends that everyone over age 45 goes to their GP for what he calls ‘a cognoscopy’ — a series of simple blood tests that will show markers for various conditions that could raise your risk of Alzheimer’s. He also recommends taking one of the many free online cognitive assessments, such as Sage.
“That will give you an idea of where you stand,” he says. “One of the problems is that you can have cognitive decline sneak up on you.”
Dr Bredesen has developed a comprehensive 36-point protocol to tackle Alzheimer’s — including simple lifestyle changes — that he claims can prevent and even reverse some of the symptoms of cognitive decline associated with the disease. To date, he has conducted a study of 10 patients which showed significant improvements in the symptoms of nine of them within three to six months. Dr Bredesen is now poised to conduct a larger trial of 50 people and is about to publish a paper documenting improvements in a further 100 people who followed the programme. “Times are changing dramatically,” he says. “This idea that there is nothing you can do to prevent or reverse Alzheimer’s is out of date now — that is 20th century medicine. There’s a lot you can do and people are showing this repeatedly.”
Those who follow his protocol benefit in all sorts of ways: “Many end up being able to stop their hypertensives, their anti-diabetic drugs and their statins, because when you do the right things, you actually don’t need them.”
But you needn’t necessarily be suffering from cognitive decline to want to build a better brain — as we show over the following pages.
Dr Daniel Amen is qualified as both an adult and child psychiatrist in the US, has published 10 New York Times bestsellers and specialises in brain disorders. He is also a firm believer in optimising brain health at any stage of life.
“I know it sounds weird but a lot of the risk factors actually happen before people are 25, so taking a whole-life approach to keeping your brain healthy is essential.”
He points to the impact of technology on the brain. “With the internet, the human attention span has shrunk so low that a lot of people are complaining about memory. If you think about it, because of your mobile phone, you don’t have to remember numbers like you used to.”
Technology, he says, is even influencing the stage at which dementia and Alzheimer’s are diagnosed. “In the past, the family would call up and say: ‘My mum got lost in the city she’s lived in for 30 years and she’s hysterical. Something’s wrong.’ Now that same woman, whose memory is deteriorating, all she has to do is ask Siri to take her home. We’re not actually diagnosing people until later in the process, when it’s harder to do something about it.”
He has developed an approach to optimising brain health in his book, Memory Rescue: Supercharge Your Brain, Reverse Memory Loss, and Remember What Matters Most (Tyndale, €14.99) with advice on how to address risk factors.
“If you want to keep your brain healthy or rescue it if it’s headed for trouble, you have to prevent or treat the 11 major risk factors that steal your mind,” he says. He shares some of his key interventions over the following pages.
Meanwhile, this preventative ap-