Karina: I’m thinking clearly as ever, why should I listen to this?
Professor Sabina Brennan, Research psychologist: My teeth are doing okay, so why should I bother brushing them? It’s kind of, you know, dental health and brain health have huge similarities, it’s all about investment. So when we’re kids, we learn at a really very young age that time spent now brushing our teeth reaps rewards later. We know that if we brush our teeth every day that we in later life, we’re less likely to get tooth decay, we are more likely to hold on to our teeth for longer and we’re less likely to experience dental pain. And we also know that if we engage in additional activities like flossing, going to the dentist, avoiding sugary drinks, that we gain additional benefits. Now, as we get older then we come to the realisation that there’s no absolute guarantee, at some point in time we’ll get some tooth decay, we’ll, you know, lose some teeth but we know that the investment is worth the pay-off. And the same sort of principle applies with brain health. We know that there are certain things that we can do, certain behaviours that we can engage in, certain lifestyle choices that we can make that are an investment, that allow us to build a reserve and hold on to certain cognitive functions for longer. Just like an investment in dental health, there’s no absolute guarantee, but we may be able to push out the time at which we experience those cognitive symptoms or impairments in cognitive function. So in my book it’s really well worth the investment if you want to hold on to important cognitive functions like memory and attention.
Karina: So, do some extra stuff like study or some crosswords?
Professor Sabina Brennan: Well no, the thing is, you see, you might already be engaging in activities that are good for your brain health that you’re not aware of. But there is a good body of research, you know, one of the key researchers, Yaakov Stern, who’s involved in this whole area of building cognitive reserve, he says we have the ingredients but we don’t quite have the recipe. So we know that people who exercise regularly, who are socially engaged, who engage in mentally stimulating activities, who have good cardiovascular health, who maintain a healthy weight, are less likely on average to develop cognitive decline. Now that’s in later life, that’s where most of the research happens, but we do know that these same benefits also apply to people living with MS. So it’s like money in the bank, do stuff now. It’s like building this buffer. We don’t quite know how it works, part of it may be that we’ve built up this reserve of neurons, but another part of it may be that from challenging our brains, pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones, that what we are getting our brain to do is recruit other areas of the brain, you know, if we push our self to a limit, we can engage other areas of our brain and this becomes very useful, then when you have damage associated with disease your brain is already used to recruiting other areas and so it can kind of kick in and recruit those areas to bypass damage and so to allow you to maintain cognitive functioning, even in the face of adverse conditions like disease.
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Professor Sabina Brennan is co-director of the NEIL research program and professor at Trinity College Dublin’s Institute of Neuroscience. Her current research interests are in understanding differential decline in cognitive ageing, the early detection of cognitive decline.