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Better Brain Health

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Should you routinely prescribe exercise? Can people with dementia learn new skills? Does a focus on vascular health benefit brain health? Catholic Healthcare speaks to Associate Professor David Burke, Director of Older People’s Mental Health Services at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney.

“Regardless of whether people are 50 or 90, there is evidence that they can continue developing new brain cells until the day they die,” says Professor Burke, pictured above. “Cognitive stimulation is not just improving people’s brains in the same way as exercise builds muscle. It is growing new brain cells.

“Even people with dementia can derive cognitive benefit from being challenged and can learn new things.”

Professor Burke supports the well-known theory that stimulating preserved memories through personally relevant conversations, activities, pictures, movies, and music promotes wellbeing among people with dementia.

“It’s known broadly as reminiscence therapy, and it’s another type of challenge. The experience of reminiscing and discussing memories usually involves conversation, and conversation requires that your brain takes in information, making new connections, and processing and managing a novel situation. This novelty is good for brain health, and the activity also promotes social connectedness and wellbeing.”

Brain health tips

According to Professor Burke, one of the most exciting things about being involved in aged care now is the knowledge that the prevention or treatment of vascular risk factors, which are risk factors for cognitive impairment and depression, can make a difference to mental wellbeing.

“We now know it can make a difference if someone starts exercising at 80 years of age, or if a 70-year-old reduces their alcohol intake,” says Professor Burke.

“Another exciting area is social prescribing, which enables doctors and allied health professionals to refer patients to community services that can help with a range of non-medical issues, including connectedness. A leader in this is the UK Government, which has described social isolation as one of the most significant public health challenges of our time and has appointed a Minister For Loneliness.”  

Reason for optimism

In March this year, Harvard epidemiologists Professors Albert Hofman and Stephen Kay presented preliminary data from a study involving 59,000 people that suggests the incidence rate of dementia in Europe and North America has declined by about 15 per cent per decade for the past 30 years.

“It is possible that we are starting to experience the benefit of controlling people’s cholesterol and blood pressure and encouraging them to stop smoking, eat well and exercise regularly.”

Key takeaways and conclusion

Here are three key takeaways to remember:

  • What’s good for vascular health is good for brain health, and vice-versa.
  • We can continue to make new brain cells until the day we die.
  • It is possible to promote wellbeing among people with dementia by engaging them in new experiences and stimulating preserved memories.

Anybody, no matter how old, no matter how diseased, including brain disease, can benefit from positive advice, thoughtful engagement and treatment, including non-pharmacological prescriptions such as exercise.