Defying dementia - Happy + Well : Happy + Well

Defying dementia

Written by on September 22, 2015 in Wellness with 0 Comments

images4It’s a nice metaphor: our body is like a boat, our conscious and subconscious minds are analogous to the ship’s captain and crew respectively, and the ocean is life. In which case, when the weather’s good, and the captain and crew are communicating clearly, it’s all smooth sailing. But when it’s not? That’s when trouble strikes.

The metaphor isn’t mine; it’s Dr Helena Popovic’s whose father was diagnosed with dementia some years ago. When her mother died in 2010, and Popovic became her dad’s primary carer (“I inherited a man with a leaky boat”), instead of accepting his bleak prognosis, she resolved to halt his decline. Their story is the subject of Popovic’s presentation at Mind & Its Potential 2012. Lucky us, Popovic will also be speaking, albeit on a different topic, at this year’s event.

Popovic’s dad has vascular dementia, the second most common type of dementia after Alzheimer’s. The former accounts for around 15 percent of all cases in people over age 60, the latter about 60 percent. According to Popovic, her dad’s “boat had been damaged by decades of smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol,” all known to be risk factors for developing vascular dementia.

But when his “first mate”, Popovic’s mum died, “his boat was in grave danger of sinking.” In fact, for a period her dad was suicidal which motivated Popovic even more to “reengage him, to stimulate him physically, socially and mentally”. This was despite her training as a medical student that dementia is a fait accompli and that as a doctor, there’s little you can do to treat it.

On the contrary, Popovic discovered that her dad’s brain function, in particular his memory, improved dramatically when she helped him make positive lifestyle changes which included increasing his amount of daily exercise. “Every day, dad and I either go for a walk or to the gym together,” she says. She also encouraged him to ramp up his social life. “I take dad to Men’s Shed, senior’s group activities, line dancing at the local town hall and we go on Probus excursions.” And he’s now volunteering (at Meals on Wheels), an activity that has been found to reverse some of the negative effects of ageing.

But Popovic says none of this should come as a surprise given our recent discoveries about the brain, namely that:

 It’s plastic. “There is nothing static or inevitable about the brain. Our lifestyles are constantly moulding our brains.”

 There have been remarkable recoveries in people who’ve had a stroke. “The lost functions can actually be gained through consistent and persistent training because other areas of the brain can take over the damaged parts and replace their functioning.”

 “If lifestyle factors can reduce our incidence of getting dementia, why can’t these same activities slow down the progression of dementia or even possibly improve the condition?”

Popovic shares six lessons she’s learnt from her dad and their journey together living with dementia: hope empowers the mind, progress is made in baby steps, it’s futile to think in terms of ‘failure’, there’s power in positive thinking, it’s vital to be passionate, and too much routine is a killer.

She says, “The message is we’re not passive victims of our genes. We’re all born with a far more capable and adaptable brain and opportunistic mind that we ever imagined.”

 

Dr Helena Popovic is a medical doctor, leading authority on brain plasticity in relation to obesity and author of In Search of My Father and Neuroslimming – Let Your Brain Change Your Body. She is presenting at Mind & Its Potential 2015. For more information and to register, please click here.

Visit The Wellness Show Expo 1-3 April 2016, Hordern Pavilion & Royal Hall of Industries, Sydney – a free showcase of the innovation and technology that are transforming the way we stay fit and healthy. For more information and to register for your free visitor pass to the expo click here.

This includes the Wellness@Work Conference & Expo – an exciting forum and marketplace of leading workplace health and wellness solutions.  For more information and to register for your free visitor pass to the expo click here. To register for the conference click here.

These events will be co-located with The Digital Health Show which will also feature an expo as well as a major conference on the deployment of digital health technologies for administrators, clinicians and technology professionals in healthcare. For more information and to register for your free visitor pass to the expo click here. To register for the conference click here.

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