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Bringing the brain back from the brink

Living

Psychologist, neuroscientist, author and TV personality Dr Sabina Brennan chats to The Mayo News ahead of her appearance at the upcoming Rolling Sun Book Festival in Westport

Interview
Ciara Moynihan

Dr Sabina Brennan’s book, ‘100 Days To A Younger Brain: Maximise Your Memory, Boost Your Brain Health and Defy Dementia’, was released earlier this year and fast became a No 1 bestseller. In it, the former Fair City actor focuses on six lifestyle factors that she says are vitally important for managing brain health as we age – attitude, sleep, stress, social and mental activity, heart health and physical activity. She also sets out a programme designed to help people to rejuvenate their brain power.
Sabina Brennan is currently an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the ADAPT Centre in Trinity College Dublin, where she is a principal investigator in e-Health. The resident brain-health expert on RTÉ’s The Today Show with Maura and Daithí, Brennan is on a mission to spread the word about how people can optimise their everyday brain performance and hold onto important brain functions like memory into old age.
Soon, she will be doing just that in Westport, when she joins journalist and Mayo native Claire Grady for a chat about her book and her brain-health programme as part of the Rolling Sun Book Festival, which takes place from Thursday, November 21, to Sunday, November 24.

What was your life like before you decided to go to university, and what prompted the decision to dive into academia at 42?
I was working as an actor on Fair City. When that role came to an end, my character Tess Halpin was murdered, I was at a loose end, and I hate not working so I thought I’d do a night course in psychology.
I’d been doing a lot of research myself at the time to support my son through school and help him study for his Junior Cert (he had a specific learning disability). I discovered I quite liked studying with him and was keen to learn more. I’d never been to university. Anyway a call to NUI Maynooth enquiring about their part-time course ended up with me applying to study full-time.

Why were you drawn towards psychology, and what prompted your interest in dementia and its relation to brain health in particular?
I’ve always been interested in human behaviour, what makes us tick, why we choose to do one thing over another. Acting was a way to explore that. While doing my undergrad degree I became fascinated by the relationship between the brain and behaviour.
Researching for my PhD I came across a lot of information about how we can reduce our risk of developing dementia and boost brain health, and I just thought two things: A, How come I don’t know this?, and B, Everyone should know this. Since then I have been passionately spreading the brain-health message through talks, animations, websites, on radio and TV and most recently through my book.

How can a person tell if they are not paying enough attention to one or more of these areas?
The programme is designed to give the reader a clear picture of the current state of their brain health and insight into what they are doing right and what needs fixing.

Does your book give people the tools to improve their own brain health?
Yes, that’s the whole point of the book. While there are generic tips that everyone can follow to live a brain healthy life, ‘100-Days to a Younger Brain’ acknowledges that everyone’s brain is unique, shaped by their specific life experiences and life choices.
Essentially completing the programme arms you with the information you need to set your own personal goals and create a bespoke brain-health plan to optimise your brain function, slow brain ageing and minimise the impact of brain injury and brain disease

Does your book contain insights for people who might not want to do the programme themselves?
Absolutely, you can read the book without doing the programme.

What is the single worst thing an otherwise healthy person could do for their brain health? 
Ignore it.

What aspects of modern life have the greatest negative impact on brain health?
Low levels of mental stimulation. We tend to front load learning, novelty and challenge into early life and then as adults we can tend to coast along taking the easy road. The brain needs challenge, novelty and learning to thrive.
Physical inactivity also has a negative impact. Our lives have become far too sedentary thanks to technological advancement. Poor cardiovascular health, due to mainly to over eating or unhealthy food choices and inactivity, is also harmful.
Another factor is social isolation in western society; we are becoming increasingly remote from human contact. Smoking and alcohol consumption also affect brain health.

And what aspects have the greatest positive impact?
Access to knowledge and education. More and more people in western society have access to education.
Scientific advancement has led to a decrease in the number of people living with cardiovascular disease, and people are aware of the importance of living a heart-healthy life. This in turn will decrease the number of people living with dementia, as a healthy brain depends on a healthy heart.
The internet has also opened up incredible opportunities for life-long learning and for sharing health information.

Can your brain-health programme help stave off dementia?
We know that 30 percent of all cases of Alzheimer’s disease are potentially attributable to just seven modifiable lifestyle factors. This means that you can reduce your risk of developing the disease by making healthy choices around these lifestyle factors.
We also know that lifestyle influences how long you can resist the symptoms (the Alzheimer’s dementia) even if you develop the disease pathology (Alzheimer’s disease). One study showed that engaging in mentally stimulating activities staved off the onset of severe memory symptoms for two months in people who already had a diagnosis of dementia.

Is it possible to regain lost brain function?
Yes, the brain is plastic. This means that it is flexible, adaptable and can change by reorganising itself and growing new connections between neurons (brain cells). In response to brain injury, this neuroplasticity allows the brain to compensate for lost function and remaining function. You brain has the ability to change with learning.

Name one simple thing that people could be doing daily to help boost their brain health
Exercise. Physical activity has a direct benefit on the structure and function of your brain. Physical activity releases hormones that create a nourishing environment to promote the growth of new brain cells. It also stimulates neuroplasticity by increasing growth factors in the brain that make it easier to grown connections between brain cells.

For more details on the upcoming Rolling Sun Book Festival and its full programme of events, visit www.rollingsunbookfestival.com, or see next week’s Mayo News for a preview.  
Sabina Brennan’s ‘On The Couch’ chat with Claire Grady takes place in The Clew Bay Hotel at 3pm on Saturday, November 23. For tickets (€15 each), contact The Clew Bay Hotel on 098 28088.