Medical researchers tell us that right now one in three people over 85 and one in ten people over 65 will get dementia.
Australian statisticians tell us that there are currently approximately 350,000 Australians living with some form of dementia and that without a medical breakthrough this number will rise to 900,000 by 2050.
Statistics in other western world countries are very similar. Dementia is on the rise.
Scary statistics for anyone but in particular those of us who are getting close to or have already passed the age of fifty.
The fact is that no one knows for sure whether they will or won’t get dementia but I for one am not prepared to just wait and see.
Why? Because dementia is currently turning my life upside down.
My Dad has Dementia
In March 2015 my beloved intelligent and capable father was diagnosed with dementia.
So while he survived a heart attack in 2002 and he has been kept alive on dialysis since his kidneys failed him four years ago, it is now his brain that is failing him at 83.
Not only that but testing has shown that he has a gene that “may” have made him more susceptible to Alzheimers.
So therefore this was a big wake up call for his daughter.
Of course the signs that there were memory issues had started to appear well before the beginning of 2015.
These signs however were inconsistent and difficult to pinpoint.
There is nothing like a crisis point however to bring everything to a head and this happened to us Christmas 2014.
Dad had a fall the week before Christmas and hit his head which left him very confused. This combined with the stress of Christmas made us all realise something was seriously wrong in Dads brain.
What to do?????
There are no easy answers to this question and the health system in Queensland is certainly not designed to make it easy for you.
Add to this the fact that my Dad was very confused and concerned about what was happening and was obviously not going to agree to anything that he did not believe were in his best interests.
The outcome was a visit to a Geriatrician, a doctor who specialises in ageing and dementia.
After a number of brain scans and various other tests we had our answers. Dad was suffering from the two most common forms of dementia, Vascular Dementia and Alzheimers.
Vascular dementia is a decline in thinking skills caused by conditions that block or reduce blood flow to the brain which deprives the brain cells of oxygen and nutrients.
So there is a very good chance that when Dad had his fall before Christmas 2014 he had some sort of mini stroke that affected his brain. Hence the crisis.
Alzheimers affects up to 70% of people with dementia and causes problems with memory, thinking and behaviour.
Unfortunately for Dad, while there is a bucket load of money being spent on research, at this stage there is no drug that can actually prevent or stop Alzheimers progressing, only drugs that can slow down the deterioration of the brain that it causes.
There is some good news however and that is a whole lot of research is also being undertaken into how to prevent dementia.
These researchers are finding that if you give your brain a whole lot of love there is a very good chance you will prevent dementia or your brain will find a way to live with it successfully.
So what do we currently know about the brain?
A lot more than we used to.
Studying the brain, dementia and ageing has become very popular since the 1990’s when neuroscientists discovered that the brain has the ability to make new nerve cells.
Then there are all the incredible stories about neuroplasticity and how the brains of people who are recovering from stroke, brain damage or spinal injuries are adapting and evolving.
Their brains are fundamentally rewiring themselves and creating new pathways to replace pathways that no longer work.
Dad’s brain has rewired itself
We know in Dad’s case, his brain has found new pathways.
According to his geriatrician the results of his brain scans reflect a brain that is far more affected by Alzheimer’s than what is reflected in his day to day cognitive ability.
Why has Dad’s brain been able to do this?
It’s because he has kept his brain very, very active his whole life.
Every morning he reads “The Australian” newspaper from cover to cover and loves nothing better than a challenging conversation about what is happening in the world.
Up until just last year he was still writing and rewriting chapters for his book on The History of Management.
Dad has also been an avid reader and researcher of history his whole life and this combined with his love of conversation and debating has meant his brain has always been challenged.
So when Alzheimers started to affect his brain it simply found other pathways to keep functioning.
How active are you keeping your brain?
- How often do you learn something new?
- Do you read, do puzzles or brain exercises?
- Is your brain being challenged to create new pathways and stay agile?
What am I doing?
- I listen to two or three podcasts per week on something new that I want to learn about
- I love to read (I am very much my father’s daughter) and have two or three books on the go at any time
- I am on a very big learning curve as I learn to write blogs, use social media and build an online business
- I am designing and developing new workshops for women on being Fearlessafter50!
So my brain is being kept active but what about my body?
Can exercising our bodies help our brains?
This really has been the biggest learning for me around brain health.
Research is very clear that keeping your body moving is without a doubt beneficial to your brain.
Recently in “The Weekend Australian” magazine there was an interview with Perry Bartlett, an Australian neuroscientist who is studying the link between dementia and exercise.
Bartlett is studying how exercise can reactive the growth of new nerve cells that are important for learning and memory which he believes might reverse cognitive decline and even dementia.
Then there is Dr Norman Doidge, a Canadian psychiatrist, who is considered a world leader in the area of dementia.
In an interview with the Australian Women’s Weekly for their September 2015 edition, Dr Doidge tells us “it is now absolutely crystal clear that physical exercise helps preserve brain functioning”.
Dr Doidge talks about a study conducted by the Mayo Clinic which found that people without dementia who did aerobic exercise for a year showed significant enlargement of the hippocampus which is the brain’s centre for memory, learning and emotions. The area of the brain that Alzheimer’s disease attacks first.
So while we know exercise is beneficial, the big question that researchers are looking to answer is:
What sort of exercise and how much should we be doing?
Unfortunately neuroscientists do not yet have an answer to this question.
Studies so far have indicated that too much or too little exercise will not activate new nerve cells in the brain. Hence Perry Barlett’s study to find that “sweet spot”.
Put your dancing shoes on
What we do know is that one exercise that is incredibly good for your brain is dancing.
A well know study conducted by the Einstein College of Medicine in New York which began in 1980 and lasted for 21 years took people 75 and older and looked at whether there were any physical or cognitive activities that would influence mental acuity over this time.
They found that the only physical activity to offer protection against dementia was dancing.
Dancing four or more times per week was found to have an amazing 76% protection.
The reason dancing is so effective is not just because it offers a form of exercise, it also integrates several brain functions at once.
It requires us to be kinaesthetic, rational, musical and emotional.
Don’t start boogying just yet however?
The sort of dancing we are talking about however isn’t the sort most of us participate in where we just get up and bop around on a dance floor.
We are talking about dancing where the brain is required to make new neural pathways.
The people in this study were doing the dancing they had grown up with in the thirties, forties and fifties.
It required them to dance with a partner. One person was leading and one was following and while the couples were familiar with the steps their brains were required to constantly make quick decisions and learn new moves.
Many aged care homes nowadays provide dance classes for their residents that are aimed at keeping both their bodies and minds active.
If dancing is not your thing don’t despair, we know from studies that any exercise will help the brain.
My Dad’s not a dancer but he does have a personal trainer
When Dad started dialysis four years ago he decided to get himself a personal trainer.
As he sat in a chair having dialysis three times a week for five hours each session he realised how important it was going to be to keep his body flexible and his circulation healthy.
So in his late 70’s my dad enters a gym and gets a personal trainer for the first time in his life.
Not only this, but he also adds a fortnightly session of reflexology and massage.
Pretty smart move on Dad’s part and there is no doubt it has made a difference to keeping his body healthy.
What none of us realised at the time however was that while Dad was keeping his body healthy he was also helping his brain to stay healthy.
Dad’s geriatrician has told us that he has no doubt that this exercise program has made and continues to make a difference to Dad’s brain health.
The key message from all the research is to keep your body moving and try and do some exercise every day.
Exercise sharpens memory and one study showed that merely walking twenty minutes a day was enough to slow or reverse the cognitive decline of patients who already had Alzheimers.
So the importance of exercise to brain health has been the biggest wake up call for me. While I have always been active, over the past five years my commitment to exercise has been intermittent.
I am up now up and moving!
- I am now absolutely committed to exercising regularly
- I am not a girl who likes routine so I mix it up a bit
- I have a “Rebounder” which I love and I do a program that includes balance, flexibility, and decision making
- I walk one of two days a week with my other half in the bush or around the neighbourhood
- I add in a yoga class at least once a week as well as gardening and housework
Besides feeling better for it, my body is getting stronger and I can feel all those wonderful nerve cells in the memory centre of my brain being activated and new neural pathways springing up all over the place.
Just a few more things you need to consider for your brain!
You just have to feed your brain the right food.
If you feed your brain garbage you have to expect that it will give you garbage back particularly as it ages.
Your brain absolutely loves dark leafy greens, and fresh fruit and vegetables. It is also a big fan of salmon and other oily fish.
You may have also heard about Resveratrol which has been touted as a brain food and some studies have shown may affect the underlying processes that cause Alzheimers.
Well the good news is that Resveratrol is found in red wine.
The bad news is you have to drink around 1000 bottles of red wine a day to get enough Resveratrol to make a difference which is probably a little bit over the top, particularly for my liver.
The other good news however is that chocolate also contains Resveratrol.
The bad news is that I am not talking about your average family block of Cadbury’s milk chocolate. It has to be at least 80% cacao dark chocolate to make a difference.
The good news for Dad and I is we both love red wine and dark chocolate.
How healthy are your relationships?
Another thing you need to consider is the quality of your relationships and how socially connected you are to other people.
A Harvard study that commenced in 1938 and lasted for 75 years showed that those of us who are in happy and supportive relationships and who stay connected to other people have brains that stay healthier and do not deteriorate as quickly as those who are unhappy, depressed or lonely.
What does this mean for Dad?
While my dad lost my mum to cancer 25 years ago and while he has been on his own since he has always had a loving family and friends that care for him.
A really important part of his week is his morning breakfasts at Mokachino’s, his local coffee shop which he has been going to for over 20 years.
It never fails to amaze me when I join him for breakfast there how many people he knows and how much they care for him.
Add to this his church on Sundays as well as the nurses and patients where he has his dialysis and his social network is very healthy.
What does this mean for me?
I have found that as I have had friends move away and my priorities have changed over the past few years my social network and group of supportive women friends has diminished.
So it is time to rebuild and connect with some new women who will be part of my future.
An important element of starting Fearlessafter50! is the opportunity to build a tribe of Fearlessafter50! women who will support and nurture each other.
While I am still in my early days of building my social networks and Fearlessafter50! tribe I can honestly say I can feel the love and support.
Last really, really important thing you need to do
You have to sleep. Your brain loves and really needs a good nights sleep.
It works hard during the day and at night it processes and regenerates.
This sometimes gets more difficult as we get older and it is certainly a problem for my dad.
Me I have no problem sleeping 7 or 8 hours every night.
If you are not doing it already get really intimate with your bed and find a way to get more ZZZ’sss.
Get serious and start saying no to dementia now
Don’t wait for some amazing medical breakthrough to come up with some magic pill.
Start loving your brain more now.
Nurture it. Research it. There’s lots of great books out there on brain health. My latest favourites are “Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (Or Die Trying)” by Bill Gifford or “Why isn’t my brain working?” by Datis Kharrazian.
Get your brain active, get your body active.
Get some sleep!
Work on creating healthy personal relationships and social networks that you love and will love you back.
What’s next for Dad and me?
I am constantly surprised by what an amazing job Dad’s brain is doing of finding new pathways and keeping this nasty disease at bay.
What the future has in store for us we don’t know and I have to admit it scares me as I am sure it scares him.
Either way I always have been and always will be an incredibly proud daughter.
Dad has lived an incredible life and with the love and support of his family and friends he continues to live a life filled with love and purpose.
What more could you ask for?
Are you a woman 50 or over? Do you live in or near Brisbane? Are you wandering what is next for you or searching for some more passion or purpose in your life? Email me on firstname.lastname@example.org or click on my workshops/retreats section to find out about my new fearless after 50 one day workshop for women.