The rolling benefits of banking that brain health

Research lives: Dr Sabina Brennan’s ‘100 Days to a Younger Brain’ is a revealing read

Neuroscientist Sabina Brennan (right) with Dr Laura McAvinue in Trinity college Dublin. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Why did you write a book about brain health?

"While doing brain research at Trinity College Dublin I read academic papers that showed it is possible to build resilience through brain healthy life choices. This resilience means, for example, that you can have the pathology of Alzheimer's disease in your brain but not experience dementia symptoms. From then on I wanted to shout about brain health from the rooftops.

How did you become interested in brain research?

I’ve always been interested in human behaviour and why people do things. That initially led me to become an actor, and I loved getting inside the head of a character to discover why they behaved in a particular way. I studied psychology in my 40s then I did a PhD in the Institute of Neuroscience on how cognitive function, or our ability to think, learn and remember, changes as we age.

What are your top tips for having a healthier brain?

Whatever age you are, get enough good quality sleep, tackle chronic stress and stay socially engaged. Look after your heart and keep physically and mentally active. Also smile, it immediately helps to lift your mood and connect with others.

Surely there are no guarantees – disease and dementia can still happen?

Absolutely, but you may be in a better position if it develops. We brush our teeth every day because we know that it will help us keep our teeth healthier for longer. Yes, you may still need fillings when you are older, but perhaps not as many than if you hadn’t brushed regularly. Similarly, on average, we know that a healthier brain may function more effectively for longer even if the pathology or disease that gives rise to dementia is present.


Have you changed your life as a result of your research?

Over the last few years I have learned to manage stress better. I’m better at saying no. Now I focus mainly on meaningful projects that excite me like writing this book, where yes there is stress but it’s positive and it’s great to harness that energy to make something happen.

I also started working out with weights to build muscle. This year I am putting an emphasis on socialising more as I tend to work long hours, often in solitude, because I love what I do so much.

In 2016 Science Foundation Ireland gave you the "Outstanding Contribution to STEM Communication" award and you have developed brain health websites and short films as well as writing this book.

What advice do you have for researchers on public engagement?

Forget everything you have learned about writing an academic paper! To reach more people, you don’t need to dumb down the content, instead change the language you use and think about what is relevant to the audience, why does what you are doing matter to them? Also, it is important to tell people how you feel about the research. If it excites you, that will transmit.

What do you do to take a break?

I like to take photographs. I keep my camera beside my laptop when I am writing at home and I take pictures of birds in the garden, their behaviour is fascinating. I’ve started listening to audiobooks too when I’m walking or around the house. And we have rescue dogs who are part of our family. They make me smile, which is my favourite in-the-moment tip for brain health.”

  • 100 Days to a Younger Brain by Dr Sabina Brennan is published by Orion Spring.
Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation