Smash dementia; why and how

Dementia has to be challenged on three levels. It presents challenges to current and future societies

Meditation, mindfulness
Does the stigma of dementia reflects unhealthy attitudes towards the elderly?

Dementia is much more than an illness

The slogan smash dementia is both dramatic and provocative but it contains three important messages that cannot be ignored. At first sight ‘smash dementia’  might appear not to make sense, dementia is a syndrome, a collection of symptoms, so how can they be smashed? The key is to think of the challenge of dementia on three different levels, firstly the current suffering caused by dementia, secondly the conditions that give rise to dementia and thirdly the concept that links old age to inevitable cognitive decline.

Smash the suffering caused by dementia

adult aged baby care

It is important to acknowledge that some people diagnosed with dementia can live long and fulfilling lives, but this is not always the case. In its advanced form dementia can lead to great suffering, both for patients as well as their friends and family. This is the aspect of dementia that requires immediate and urgent action. If you search the academic literature you will find hundreds of thousand of publish studies about or linked to dementia, and yet there is still much that is not known. More worryingly what is known is not always being communicated. Although some general ideas about how to reduce cognitive decline are shared with the wider community, the advice often lacks  detail and authority.

“In 2015 over 110,000 people died of Alzheimer’s Dementia (AD) in the US, it is the sixth leading cause of death. Deaths from AD increased by 123% in the fifteen years following 2000. In contrast mortality rates linked to stroke and heart disease fell.”

Smash the conditions for dementia

Dementia is set to become one of the defining health concerns of the 21st century. In the next twenty years we expect to see the total number of people living with dementia worldwide increase three fold to 150 million. The human and economic costs of this scenario are without precedent, huge efforts are needed if society is going to cope, let alone provide appropriate levels of care. We have a conveyor belt with increasing numbers of people in cognitive decline ready to join the ranks of those already diagnosed with dementia. There is almost no information being offered to people in their 40s about what they can do to improve their brain health and lower the risks of serious cognitive impairment. What are we waiting for? We need to attack dementia, not simply upon diagnosis but at the point the syndrome begins its destructive path.

Smash the negative stereotypes of old age

Day 194 - West Midlands Police - Royal Diamond Jubilee Visit (7555521830)
Queen Elizabeth II, 92
When my late mother was in her early 60s, she started to describe any lapses in memory or cognitive function as ‘senior moments’. Around this time she started to use a computer and demonstrated no observable indications of cognitive decline, and yet she carried and communicated the idea that her brain was starting to become less reliable. I’m concerned that we label older people as inferior generally and that the stigma linked to dementia is a results of negative stereotypes. As a society we don’t value older people enough, we don’t recognize their skills, experience and capacities. And yet there is evidence all around us that people over the age of 65 can make significant and meaningful contributions to society. For example President Trump is 72, Bruce Springsteen 69, Queen Elizabeth II is 92 and the Emperor of Japan, Akihito is 84. This isn’t a denial of the aging process, rather a rejection of the assumption that older people can’t make valuable contributions to society.

Compassion, social engagement and happiness

oldandyoung
Compassion, unlimited and always available

Compassion as a central component to health and society

A presumed contributory factor in cognitive decline and poor mental health is social isolation. Perhaps humans are hard wired to live with other people, humankind has evolved in intergenerational groups. Choosing to live alone or in nuclear families is a relatively new innovation in human experience. Research has indicated that people living in social isolation have a higher risk of suffering a heart attack, stroke or becoming obese. In short if we stay socially engaged we can expect to live longer with a higher quality of life. But a recent report from Generations United and the Eisner Foundation indicated that the benefits of intergenerational care extend to young people as well as old.

adult affection baby child

Champion was a community centre in Columbus, Ohio. It has been transformed into an intergenerational enrichment and education center, where community provision for young people and the elderly have been brought together under one roof. The smart use of the physical space makes a good deal of economic sense. But perhaps the greatest benefit has been seen in changes to the lives of the users of the facilities. According to the report, older people involved in intergenerational programs;

  • enjoy improved health and wellbeing
  • feel less isolated and lonely
  • and participants with dementia report increased levels of engagement.

Young people and children demonstrate

  • increased self-regulation, empathy and improved social acceptance
  • higher personal/social developmental skills (preschoolers)
  • improved motor and cognitive skills.

In the US 89% of people think that meeting the needs of children, young people and the elderly on the same site is a good idea. The evidence indicates that young and old alike derive benefit from the experience and yet there are only 105 intergenerational shared sites across the US. To put the potential of the concept into context there are 11,000 registered Senior Centers across the country.

In addition to the value of intergenerational programmes, this study reinforces the widespread evidence that brain health is linked to a number of lifestyle factors. That having to care for and engage with others enriches us in a concrete way. This supports research illustrating that compassion may be a crucial component in maintaining healthy and productive cognitive activity.

Younger brain? Challenge age related cognitive decline

Meditation can support a healthy brain and limit age related cognitive decline.

two man and two woman standing on green grass field
Why and how our brains age is still not fully understood

Help shape your own future

The brain reacts to everything it comes into contact with, this includes stimulus from the senses and internal processes such as those created during meditation. Recent scientific studies indicate that brain structure and function can be positively meditated by methods such as Brain Renewal Meditation (BRM).

One of the big deals with cognitive decline is we don’t really understand how it works. There is of course an inevitability that human brain performance must eventually decline, it is unrealistic to assume brain structure can remain intact for eternity. But as a command and control system the human brain is unrivaled in the universe. We are currently unable to count the billions of neurons in a human brain, and mankind still doesn’t have the computing power to run a biologically reliable digital simulation of our brain, even if such a model could be created. What we do know is that the brain is able to develop new function and structure (plasticity) and there is some evidence that new neurons can be generated in the adult hippocampus (neurogenesis).

The ability of the brain to restructure makes understanding brain aging particularly problematic. Structures are continually changing, new functions require support and obsolete functions can fall into decay. These changes take place against a backdrop of an incalculable amount of stimulus, almost everything we experience or think about can have an impact on the brain. The average rate in the reduction of human cognitive function is generally referred to age related cognitive decline. The factors linked to ‘typical’ rates of decline are still not fully understood and the nuanced way that structures change and interact is far from clear.

accomplishment ceremony education graduation

The idea that from the age of thirty adults lose a little bit more of cognitive function every year is completely wrong. Whilst cognitive decline is correlated with age, regional and global improvements in brain function during middle and old age have been observed.

From the point of view of meditation, we know from traditional sources and modern science that certain forms of meditation exert an effect on different regions of the human brain. Long term meditators have been found to have ‘younger’ brains than non meditators and meditation is also associated with increased cortical thickness. Meditation is not the only way of maintaining or increasing brain health but it is one of the oldest and most reliably established. The message is pretty simply, if you want to maintain or improve brain age or brain health think very seriously about meditation.

A healthy brain; it’s all about you

The key to successful meditation. You! Your motivation is key to Brain Renewal Training.

Your brain age
The rate your brain ages is your responsibility

Taking control of your brain

There is no cliche’ or slogan I can use that will persuade you to take better care of your brain, it’s all about you. This website can simply explain what is known on the subject and share appropriate brain training meditation methods. For meditation to be effective the desire to achieve optimum brain health must be developed and nurtured in each of us.

There is no compulsion implied, I write about and teach Brain Renewal meditation (BRM) only for people that want the benefits of a younger, healthier brain. Many people are happy to allow nature to take its course and allow their genes to decide the way their brain ages, that is a legitimate and common choice. Problem is it’s not that simple, the way we live, how we think, where we go and what we do will all influence our brain’s structure and function. Our genes are only one  factor in brain aging, the evidence indicates that making small but important changes in our daily life will greatly benefit long term brain health.

“the number of people living with dementia is expected to treble in the next 20 year”

It is this ability to choose one path over another that rests at the heart of brain health. Our brain is designed to help us, its sole function is to follow our commands. This may sound self evident but it is an idea which is often absent from much of contemporary scientific thinking. In psychology for example, meditation research rarely pays sufficient attention to the motivation of meditators, preferring to allow the method of meditation to be the dominant object of research. It’s a great challenge for psychology because meditation is ultimately about what you do with your mind, not how you sit, what you say and the expression on your face. And so with BRM the first question you should ask yourself is, do you want to maintain optimum cognitive function? Only then should the methods gain any real importance.

There is an enduring paradigm in cognitive psychology, that cognitive decline is age related. That there is a ‘natural’ reduction in brain structure and function from the late 20s onward. This seems kind of intuitive at first sight, older people do appear to suffer from ongoing cognitive decline, just look at our parents and grandparents. However this view is contradicted by the research, certain lifestyle choices are consistently linked to cognitive decline and attenuation in brain structure. At best our chronological age is one of several factors correlated with how our brain will be working in middle and old age.

midsection of man holding hands over white background

How can we explain those individuals that appear to enjoy near peak cognitive performance into their 70s, 80s and 90s? Sir Jonathan Miller (originally a neurology specialist) is just one of many examples.

After many years of study and practice the first question I ask new meditation students is “why to do want to meditate?”. Most of the benefit you are likely to get from meditation will be linked to this question, meditation isn’t primarily about me or the science, it’s about you!