Dr Max The Mind Doctor: Why brain games can help us fight dementia
15th December 2018

Dr Max The Mind Doctor: Why brain games CAN help us fight dementia

The elderly lady sitting in front of me waved her magazine. ‘I’ve been doing lots of crosswords, puzzles and Sudoku, doctor,’ she said proudly. ‘Every day. I’m doing everything I can to stop dementia.’

She paused and looked at me warily: ‘I’m not wasting my time, am I?’

This is a question I’m asked frequently — and until this week I’ve never been 100 per cent sure of the answer, as I’ll explain.

Many patients tell me they’d rather develop any manner of physical illness instead (file picture)

When I first started work, dementia was very much an overlooked speciality and certainly not a condition widely discussed outside medical circles. How things have changed! 

We are now all much more aware of the illness and of how devastating it can be, so there is inevitable anxiety as we age.

Have you only misplaced the car key or is it the first sign of Alzheimer’s? Is forgetting why you walked into a room just a slip of the mind or does it herald something more sinister? Did you take the wrong route to the supermarket because you were distracted or . . .?

People absolutely dread dementia. Many patients tell me they’d rather develop any manner of physical illness instead. And, of course, the natural response is to want to do something to prevent it.

Scientists at Aberdeen University suggested that puzzles do work, at least in part. They found that they won’t prevent dementia, but they do raise the point at which cognitive decline starts (file picture)

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As the sole carer for her frail 84-year-old husband, my patient had every reason to want to stay as sharp as possible. If she were to be incapacitated, it would be a tragedy for both of them.

She wanted to be proactive — to do something positive to reduce the risk of this happening — but would ploughing through puzzle books really help?

For a long time, scientists thought of the brain as being like a muscle, and that the more you used it, the stronger and more resilient it would be. The ‘use it or lose it’ theory — and, of course, that would surely ward off dementia.

When being lonely is good for children 

One in ten children are ‘often lonely’, if we are to believe the latest Office for National Statistics figures.

This was described as ‘heartbreaking’ by the Children’s Society, and the usual suspects have rushed to wring their hands and declare that an ‘epidemic’ of loneliness is sweeping through the youth of today.

Loneliness is not a pleasant experience for anyone, young or old, but it is a normal — and transient — part of growing up.

One in ten children are ‘often lonely’ according to Office for National Statistics figures (file picture)

It is the usual consequence of change, be it moving home, changing schools, or a family break-up.

Feeling lonely can be exactly what motivates a person to do something about their circumstances and adapt.

It is the drive behind getting out, meeting people and establishing new social circles, and it helps young people develop resilience and resourcefulness.

We already mollycoddle children too much, and it is creating a generation who lack the basic skills required to survive emotionally.

Let’s not try to protect them from loneliness, as it’s often what encourages them to start living to the full.

This idea took hold and a lucrative industry sprang up to cater for the demand for brain teasers for the middle-aged and elderly. They fill pages in publications popular with this age group, and book stores have whole sections dedicated to every kind of puzzle book.

The problem was the lack of evidence that this actually worked. Individuals who did daily Sudoku or who could complete difficult crosswords in record time still got dementia.

Gradually, the official line among scientists was that these fun mental challenges conferred little protection. 

However, I’ve always had my doubts about this and, like many of my colleagues, I’ve encouraged my patients to keep on doing puzzles if they enjoy them. Now research published this week vindicates this position.

Scientists at Aberdeen University suggested that puzzles do work — at least in part. They found that they won’t prevent dementia, but they do raise the point at which cognitive decline starts, meaning that an individual stays mentally well for longer.

In other words, it takes longer to reach the threshold for developing noticeable symptoms.

This fits with our understanding of neurobiology. The brain has great plasticity; it is constantly growing, changing and adapting throughout our lives.

It doesn’t matter if you’re eight or 80, your brain will retain this capacity, although it does slow down and more nerve connections are lost than are created.

What the new study shows is that regularly using the brain for complex tasks — including practising memory games and other mental challenges — creates a greater number of connections between brain cells.

It means that when the wiring of the brain starts to break down with age, or if dementia develops, the brain has ‘back-up’ networks to use instead.

Not only does this show how amazing the brain is, it also offers some hope in a condition where hope is often in short supply.

And the best thing of all? It’s never too late to start building those brain connections, so if you’re in need of stocking fillers this year for an elderly relative, why not pop in a puzzle book? 

Legalising cannabis could lead to one million under-25s trying the drug and 100,000 new addicts, according to a report by the Centre for Social Justice think-tank. It’s a terrifying prospect. 

The prefrontal cortex of the brain — which governs personality and emotions, and which inhibits inappropriate behaviour — is still maturing right through to the mid-20s. 

It’s the part of the brain that makes us who we are. And we know that cannabis use affects brain development. If there was ever a reason to oppose the vociferous lobby demanding the decriminalisation of this toxic drug, then this is it.   

Dr Max prescribes…

You can have your sore throat checked out at one of the 200 Superdrug pharmacies nationwide offering an innovative new service. 

The free ten-minute consultation with a pharmacist involves a full examination. If necessary, a swab will be taken to determine if your sore throat is bacterial — and may require antibiotics — or viral, which is the case in nine out of ten sore throats, and so doesn’t need antibiotics.

This service has both the potential to reduce pressure on GPs as well as the number of unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions. Great stuff!

Our care nightmare 

Did you see Care, Jimmy McGovern’s new drama about dementia that aired on Sunday on BBC TV? It told the story of a daughter’s (Sheridan Smith) battle to get appropriate care for her mother (Alison Steadman) after a stroke that left her partially paralysed and with vascular dementia.

It was desperately sad, but unsparing in its exposition of just how inhumane the process of applying for social care can be; the ludicrous bureaucracy and the endless frustrations.

And I was surprised that the programme attracted so much criticism because of its sometimes harsh portrayal of health care and social workers. To me, it seemed damningly accurate, since professional standards in this sector aren’t always what they should be.

As anyone who has had responsibility for a loved one with dementia will attest, often you feel as if you’re on your own. Yes, Care made difficult viewing, but it should be compulsory for those in Government to watch it.

Heal the NHS with mind control

Newly released files on the CIA’s sinister Project MKUltra — a unit set up in the Fifties and Sixties to investigate mind control — has revealed the scandalous extent of the experiments.

Scientists subjected human guinea pigs to a range of biological and chemical techniques in an attempt to control thoughts and actions.

The experiments were largely failures, though, and you’d assume the idea of mind control would be consigned to the history books. 

In fact, it’s still very much present — and I’m a fan because I think it could really benefit the NHS.

Today, mind control focuses on ‘nudging’ people towards choices that are beneficial to them and for the greater good — the so-called ‘nudge theory’.

For example, scientists at Imperial College London showed that pumping the ‘smell’ of soap into an intensive care unit made staff and visitors much more likely to wash their hands; while a fruit bowl by the till in a hospital canteen will influence more people to buy a piece of fruit.

At Barts NHS Trust in London, the cost of missed appointments is included in reminder texts sent to patients, reducing the number of missed appointments by nearly 25 per cent. Small changes — but together they can have a huge impact. 

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