(Continued from the Home page…)
Neurodegenerative diseases have no cure. It was like a medical “search and destroy” exercise where we made diagnoses of incurable, horrifically cruel diseases and then had little to offer. I became discouraged and felt that there was really no effective way to help my patients and their caregivers.
At the time I had just finished reading a book by Dr. Christiaan Barnard. The title was “Your Healthy Heart” and in that book Dr. Barnard described his heroic efforts in completing the first fully functional heart transplant. I read on, and to my surprise much of the book was devoted to prevention of heart disease, essentially a healthy heart program – how to prevent a heart transplant.
We know that brain transplant is an absurdity. We also know that like the heart, the brain is an organ of the body. I thought “even if there is no such thing as a brain transplant, why can we not have a healthy brain program?”
I started to put a different bias on my lectures. Instead of the deficit paradigm of identifying what is broken and then trying to fix it (impossible in almost all cases of brain disease), I started to talk about what are good and bad for the brain. What followed was a veritable explosion of interest in this area. I started to rewrite my lectures and introduced new ideas based on what was reported in scientific literature. The audiences appreciated this new approach because it was educational, inspirational and empowering. Next, I did a huge amount of work researching the literature about what we, as scientists, know about what is good and what is bad for the brain. I found that all the information (and there was an enormous amount of it) seemed to naturally cluster into eight areas. I endeavoured to weed out unreliable studies, anecdotal references and other sources of misinformation that were incorrect or misleading. My aim was to stay evidence based and to perpetually update the content.
I received much encouragement along the way. In 2000, the editor of the British Columbia chapter of Mensa Canada published an interview about my Healthy Brain Program. I created a syllabus consisting of my lectures with PowerPoint presentations. The core curriculum consisted of an orientation that familiarized the audience with fundamental issues, prevalent today, pertaining to brain health. This included some history and facts about the brain and the critical concepts of health span, life span and brain health. It also emphasized why brain health is much more important today than ever before. I gave brief descriptions of the brain as an organ of the body and defined some common obstacles to attaining brain health. The final part of the orientation was about the staying power of the brain – the most marvellous organ of the body. Research is telling us that the brain can grow new cells, can rewire itself and recruits unused areas and heals and recovers after injury. The other eight lectures all pertain to what I named The Eight Pillars of Brain Health and Longevity: 1) safety, 2) nutrition, 3) physical fitness, 4) mental activity, 5) sleep, 6) stress, 7) hormones, and 8) treatment of disease – common diseases that are independent risk factors for early onset neurocognitive disorder, also known as dementia.
The presentations became more and more popular and I was successful in delivering them as accredited symposia for other physicians, other professional bodies, the general public and patients. BCTV gave Canada-wide coverage on a syndicated health news show. I also had the opportunity to speak at three of the American Institute of Medical Education (AIMED) conferences in Maui. Elders and teachers were particularly eager and encouraged me to expose younger people to this material. A 90 year old, healthy, high functioning gentleman in one of my adult education courses pointed out to me that teaching this to healthy old people was not the best use of my time because they already knew most of this, and were practicing these principles and reaping the benefits. Following his good advice I focused on younger populations, mostly nursing staff and consumers of our health care system. I trained facilitators to help with the work of leading groups at various settings. Our community outreach programs are now using the HBP as a platform for prevention, delivering brain care and educating clients and families. I handed out lecture notes, made posters, went to conferences and made over 250 presentations. I always received a great deal of encouragement and applause. Many times people asked me about a book. Given that I was a busy clinician, I simply did not have the time or other resources to put all the lectures into a readable book format. On the other hand, I was receiving so much encouragement, and even a small financial grant, that I finally undertook the project, which of course turned out to be a lot more work than I had anticipated. Finally the book is finished and available to the public. The title is “Your Healthy Brain: a Personal and Family Guide to Staying Healthy and Living Longer”. Dr. Patrick McGeer, a highly published and eminent researcher of Alzheimer’s disease at the University of British Columbia, wrote the foreword and insisted that I continue with my efforts to increase public awareness.
I would like to bring the healthy brain concepts, The Eight Pillars of Brain Health, into the health education curriculum of schools all over the world. This is starting to happen in my small part of the world but that is too slow for me. I am telling my story so that the added publicity will facilitate this. Ideally, I will train people including educators, teachers, nurses and parents to teach this material. At the present time I continue to give talks, however, I feel frustrated in effectively reaching enough people about this extremely important issue – one that will have a greater impact on our society than any other medical phenomenon in history. Try to imagine how much we could save in human suffering and health care dollars if brain development and brain health were taken more seriously.