We all want to live long, happy lives with all our faculties intact – and, medical expert and writer Dr. Helena Popovic argues, a healthy lifestyle can stave off dementia.
“We've always known that healthy body means a healthy mind, but the reverse is equally true,” she said. “A healthy mind will also create a healthy body.”
Dr Popovic, an authority on improving brain function, spoke at the Armidale War Memorial Library about How to Boost Your Brain and Defy Dementia on Tuesday morning.
She drew on her medical expertise and her personal experience caring for her father, who has had dementia for 12 years. She described her experience in her book In Search of My Father.
At UNE that evening, she spoke about how to shed excess body fat without dieting or deprivation.
An expert on overcoming obesity, her NeuroSlimming – Let Your Brain Change Your Body won the Bronze Medal in the international Living Now Awards, which recognise the year’s best books for better living.
How to ward off dementia
Dementia is an umbrella term for 100 different disorders that lead to declining brain function, accompanied by short-term memory loss, confusion, disorientation, and personality changes.
Dementia is a huge burden on the health system, as well as taking an enormous personal toll on sufferers and those who look after them.
More than 400,000 Australians have dementia, and 1.2 million people care for them.
"Most people think that dementia is bad luck, bad genes,” Dr Popovic said.
“We've now discovered that it's a jigsaw puzzle; there are so many lifestyle factors that contribute, which means there are so many ways we can live our lives that significantly reduce our risk of dementia.”
Scientists used to think that the brain was the only organ that couldn’t regenerate or repair itself, so dementia was irreversible.
The brain, in fact, makes about 5000 new brain cells each day. It can grow new cells, can make new connections between existing cells, or establish whole new circuits. It can even change which cells perform which functions. (You may have read Norman Doidge’s Brain That Changes Itself, or heard of neuroplasticity.) Stroke sufferers can relearn to use affected limbs.
“We are all born with a far more capable, adaptable, opportunistic brain than we ever imagined,” Dr Popovic said. “We're not passive victims of our genes. It's our moment-to-moment decisions, choices, and lifestyles that determine how well our brain cells function.”
By eating and exercising properly, she believes, people can be as mentally sharp as they near 100 as they were at 30.
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim when he was 90; Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals when he was 78; Eleanor Benz dropped out of school to support her family in the Great Depression, and went back to school to get her diploma at 90; and Australian playwright Julia Britton had three plays produced in her 97th year.
"Mental decline with age is not inevitable; it's more a self-fulfilling prophecy," Dr Popovic said.
And so, she argues, is mental acuity. Here’s how.
Get an attitude
People with a can-do attitude and a positive outlook on life have a better functioning brain – and how we think determines how we see the world.
"If you drop your pre-conceived ideas about the limits of what's possible,” Dr Popovic said, “you'll find you can achieve so much more."
Replace the word “can’t” with “how?”. Asking questions makes you more creative, and helps you find a solution. “Aim high, ask how, and your brain will get there,” Dr Popovic said.
Stay off the booze. Too much drinking shrinks the brain, while excessive alcohol consumption can cause breast cancer. Men should have no more than two standard drinks a day, and women only one.
Eat food high in omega-3: walnuts, linseed, chia seeds, flax seeds, soy beans, cold water deep sea fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna), and dark leafy vegetables.
Put as many different coloured fresh fruits and vegetables on your plate at every meal, because each different colour represents different nutrients. Green and purple ones (eggplant, blueberries, purple carrots and cabbage, spinach) are particularly good for the brain.
Get off refined sugar
Sugar affects the liver and brain in the same way alcohol does. Sugar changes the chemicals that your brain produces, increases the build-up of toxic materials in the brain, and impedes communication between brain cells, and increases risk of diabetes and dementia.
Today, by the time a child is eight years old, they’ve had more sugar than the average person had in their whole life a century ago.
The WHO advises that for a child under two, no sugar is safe. A child up to 12 should have no more than four teaspoons of sugar a day; an adult woman should have no more than six teaspoons of sugar a day; and an adult man no more than eight.
Avoid packaged foods, tomato sauce, baked beans, frozen foods, breakfast cereals, and bottled sauces are swimming in sugar. Soft drinks are particularly bad. Your colas and lemonades can increase your risk of diabetes 22 per cent.
Get off vegetable oils
Soy bean oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, canola oil, rice bran oil, and margarine are high in omega-6 acids, which cause inflammation throughout the system, and increase risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, type 2 diabetes, dementia, and depression.
Instead, eat butter, animal products (pig fat, duck fat), and fruit oils (olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil).
Dementia is a disease of sedentary lifestyles. Half an hour of movement (including walking) a day halves the lifetime risk of dementia – and is better than anti-depressants in easing depression. The brain works best for 30 minutes to an hour after exercise.
Get up out of your chair
People who sit for more than 11 hours a day have a 40% increased risk of early death, cancer, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and a higher risk of dementia. Stand up for two minutes every 20 to 30 minutes.
Get laughing, and get smiling
Both affect the brain chemistry.
Get into nature
Richard Louv coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” in 2005. Too many people spend too much time indoors – which makes them feel alienated, depressed, and unable to concentrate.
Do outdoor activities – garden, take the dog for a walk, go hiking.
Get some sunshine
Try to soak up Vitamin D for 10 minutes in the middle of the day, without sunscreen.
Learn a foreign language, a musical instrument, an art, a craft, a skill, a sport, or a hands-on endeavour. Lifelong active learning halves your risk of dementia.
Get out of your comfort zone
Once you master something, you need to challenge yourself with something new. Learn to draw live nude models. Take normal daily activities, and twist them so you’re not on autopilot.
Most people need seven to nine hours of sleep a night – but the average Australian accumulates two to three weeks of sleep loss a year. Sleep detoxes the brain.
Pause the mind chatter through meditation, yoga, tai chi, walking in the park, or listening to calm music.
The closer you feel with the people around you, the healthier you feel. (Conversely, severe arguments between couples leads to colds and flus.) Social isolation hammers the immune system, and loneliness and depression double the risk of dementia.
Get into volunteering
Feeling you have something to contribute to your fellow humans gives you connection, meaning, and a sense of purpose.
A positive attitude towards ageing adds seven and a half years to your life. Continue to set meaningful goals; wake up and focus on the good things in life; focus on what you have, rather than what you've lost. Do things you love doing. Be enthusiastic and passionate.
“If we can boost our brains, we can boost every aspect of our lives,” Dr Popovic said. “We can think better, learn better, create better, relate better, and achieve far more than we ever thought possible. Most importantly, we can go a long way toward reducing our risk of dementia.
"It's never too early to start, because dementia takes decades to develop."
More information is available from Dr. Popovic’s web-site: https://drhelenapopovic.com/