100 days to a Younger Brain
by Dr. Sabina Brennan (Orion Spring, £14.99)
Dr Christopher Moriarty
Recent decades have seen profound changes in human life and understanding: people are living longer and research workers have been equipped with instruments and techniques that have led to an understanding of the minutiae of how the brain functions.
One effect of longer life is that many people who, in the past would have died from a range of now treatable conditions live long enough for grave mental conditions, in particular Alzheimer’s, to develop.
In her introduction the author, a research psychologist at Trinity College’s Institute of Neuroscience, writes: “I have a mission in life, and that mission is to vastly increase the number of people who are able to build up their resilience to brain diseases, so they can live happier, more independent lives for very much longer.”
Her approach is two-pronged. Her pages set out, in as simple a style as possible, facts relating to the causes and incidence of dementia and their relation to a remarkable array of basic life practices such as eating, sleeping, exercising and socialising.
In simplifying this she has considerable success because the subject demands the use of a great many terms and concepts totally unfamiliar to the general reader.
In parallel with this narrative Brennan sets out a series of questionnaires, tick-boxes, scoring sheets and the format for a diary of the ‘100 days’ of her title.
She presents an outline of the interdependence of a great many functions of the body, with particular reference to the brain, its needs, its once totally unsuspected powers of self-repair and renewal and, above all, its dependence on physical and mental processes.
Neglect or abuse by the individual of some of these – from smoking to sleep patterns – increase the risk of dementia as the body grows older.
The complexities described make for riveting reading, both from the angle of the holistic nature of the body and the bewildering concept of the variety of the chemical compounds which come and go and of the trillions of individual cells which live and die as they carry out the work of the brain.
While the facts as given in the book may be purely material, they invoke a sense of wonder even in the most materialistic mind.
Dr Brennan provides the sound basis for believing that steps can be taken by any individual to reduce the risk of dementia. The brain has reserves which help it to cope with adverse situations and these can be enhanced by personal action.
To give up smoking is a simple example. Care of diet, sleep and stress patterns and maintenance of social contact are some of the more complex.
She outlines a step by step programme to improve these in the course of one hundred days. But they are only the beginning – what they lead to is a greater or lesser permanent change of life habits which will alter the very structure of the brain and leave it in a stronger position to cope with the problems of ageing as they arise.