Do you brush your teeth every day to keep them in good working order? Chances are that you do. But do you also consciously take steps to protect your brain health every day?
A new website and app called Hello Brain, developed by researchers at Trinity College Dublin, offers suggestions for daily conditioning tips or “brain buffs”, and Dr Sabina Brennan wants us to work on our brains each day just as habitually as we safeguard our teeth and gums.
“From early childhood we learn to brush our teeth to protect our dental health when we are older,” says Brennan, a principal investigator at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and co-ordinator of the Hello Brain project. “And we should also also have daily habits for our brain health, taking steps to protect it right across the lifespan.”
Brain health for life
A key concept is that our brains are “plastic”, or changeable, and new challenges can strengthen it even as we move through adulthood, explains Brennan. “You can expect some changes with age, such as absent-mindedness and perhaps having to work harder to store memories of recent events,” she says. “But a major decline in brain function is not automatically part of ageing.”
We cannot change some aspects of our brains, notes Brennan, but there are steps we can take that could have an impact down the line.
“You can’t do anything about your chronological age or your family history,” she says. “But there are some ‘modifiable’ factors such as your alcohol intake, managing your blood pressure and stress, the exercise you do, how socially engaged you are and whether you are challenging your brain by learning new things. These could all affect your brain health in the long term.”
So could lifestyle factors go as far as reducing the risk or slowing the symptoms of dementia in older age? It’s an emerging area of science and there are no guarantees, but the signs are encouraging, according to Brian Lawlor, Connolly-Norman professor of old-age psychiatry at Trinity and a consultant psychiatrist at St James’s Hospital.
“Early results from a large Finnish intervention trial – called Finger – of diet, boosting exercise and social supports in 1,260 at-risk elderly people recently reported less cognitive decline at two years in the intervention group compared to those who didn’t receive the intervention, suggesting that lifestyle modification really works to protect brain health,” says Lawlor, who was not involved in that study. “More studies are needed with longer follow up, but these results are very exciting and point to the real possibility of delaying the onset of dementia through lifestyle modification.”
Lawlor worked on the Hello Brain project and he encourages people to start investing in their brain health now, even as young adults in their 20s. “Look on it as building up a bank or reserve in the brain for later in life,” he says.
The app and website (which include contributions from this writer) detail some of the science of brain plasticity and ageing and suggest daily “brain buffs” from categories that span physical, social and mental activity, attitude and managing lifestyle. “It’s important that people do lots of different activities across the week, rather than maybe just doing the crossword every day,” says Brennan. “Variety is really key.”
Practising what they preach
Both Lawlor and Brennan are taking steps to help keep their own brains healthy too. Lawlor, a long-time tennis player, makes sure he cycles to and from work when he can, and working on the Hello Brain project made Brennan take stock.
“I go around the country talking to groups about brain health and I realised I was very stressed from my workload and I wasn’t following my own advice,” she recalls. “So the biggest change I have made is getting physically active again, which helps to manage stress, lifts my mood and makes me want to eat more healthily. I now exercise for 30 minutes each day, and it has become a habit.”
The free Hello Brain app is available for download on iPhone, iPad and Android smartphones and can be used on a computer through the hellobrain.eu website. The website also has a paper version of the app to download and print.
Brain training: 'We had never downloaded an app before; but we managed, and we felt like teenagers'
For Bob and May Scott, getting involved with the Hello Brain challenge was a case of good timing. Based in Kerry, they met Trinity College Dublin researcher Dr Sabina Brennan through their local active retirement group and she told them about the app, which encourages users to do something for their brain health every day.
The Scotts were ready to roll with a new iPad, and getting started was itself something new, says Bob. “We had never downloaded an app before, but we managed that and felt like teenagers.”
Once up and running, the Scotts took on the suggested activities.
“Some of the ideas were things we already did, such as going for a walk, but others, such as feeling an everyday object for 30 seconds, were very unusual,” says Bob.
“Some of them we adapted, such as inviting someone around for an evening who had never visited us before, instead of going out for a meal with someone we had never had a meal with. One, about ‘living in the present’, is an ongoing challenge we have to remind ourselves of everyday.”
The couple is now more aware of the variety of activities that can encourage brain health. “It is easy to focus on one or two and neglect the rest, but much harder to achieve a balance and cover them all regularly – but the app makes this much easier,” he says.
“Keep a diary in your own words – it only has to be brief – of what you did each day.”