and thought it might be 2007 after seeing the date on a waiting room magazine (in fact it was July 17, 2009).
He had no memory of what had brought him there, but it turned out he’d had a stroke. He lost a quarter of his vision and suffered extensive cognitive problems – words appeared as a “fog”, and he couldn’t follow conversations, remember facts he’d just read or keep hold of thoughts or ideas (or his keys). And all this from a man who was used to the highest level of analytical thinking, in his job as one of Australia’s top psychologists.
But ever since, he has been using his academic background to rebuild his brain – researching the best possible routes back to health.
Five and a half years on, he is able to hold conversations, write books and make sense of what he reads. He even managed to go to a music festival and dance for three hours this New Year’s Eve – something he thought he’d never be able to cope with again.
“In a cognitive sense, it’s true I am not back to where I was – I had a good memory and sharp analytical skills,” David, 56, says. “But I have come a long way and in other senses, I am well ahead of where I was – in my ability to deal with life’s difficulties. I am calm and composed, I am more compassionate and my relationship with my three teenage daughters has improved as I am less irritable and much more present with them.”
He details how he recovered in his new book How I Rescued My Brain and hopes he can inspire the UK’s one million stroke survivors. About 150,000 people have a stroke each year in Britain and half are left with disabilities. Although you can’t recover parts of the brain that are lost, you can “rewire” it so other parts take over.
“The first three to six months after a stroke are likely to show the best recovery, and sometimes people are told they won’t recover any more after that, but the research shows you can even years later,” says Dr Shamim Quadir from the Stroke Association.
Here’s what David tried…
These aim to improve brain function with targeted exercises that get progressively more difficult. David started Posit’s BrainHQ seven months after the stroke, although there are many providers of such programmes. It recommends 40 hours over eight weeks, an hour per session. He concentrated on rebuilding his auditory skills. In the beginning, he struggled to work out if a sound was going up or down in pitch and found it nearly impossible to tell sounds such as “dah” and “gah” apart.
He could only manage 30 minutes at a time before “rubber brain” set in – when words would “ping” off his brain, not going in, if he had concentrated for too long. “I would say it took a month before I noticed any generalising of these skills into normal life,” David says. “By the six-week mark, I noticed a real difference. My progress was gradual but all of a sudden, the world was easier to comprehend, as if a door had opened. Other people’s speech seemed clearer, so it was less of a strain to listen to them and easier to understand what was being said.”TYPractising mindfulness and meditation have been shown to change the structure of the brain.
Practising mindfulness (where you live in each moment and accept your thoughts as they come and go rather than try to change them) and meditation have been shown to change the structure of the brain. Research has proved that two of the four areas of the pre-frontal cortex (the “thinking” part of the brain behind the forehead) thicken and strengthen. Meditation also calms and stabilises the mind, which helps with the brain-training exercises.
David started with barely 10 minutes of meditation every morning in a shed in his garden. “It was so hard to focus on anything at first, but gradually I built it up to 30 minutes a session. I also try to practise mindfulness throughout the day – so if I’m doing something as mundane as brushing my teeth, I’m trying to be aware of only the brushing, not the 10 things I need to do afterwards.
It’s a slowing down. I’m impressed with how I can now watch my own thoughts and feelings come and go without getting irritated or annoyed, just accepting them. The evidence is pretty clear, even in an eight-week programme, that it changes your brain structure long-term and gets better the more you practise.” See headspace.com for beginners’ meditation exercises.
You don’t have to pound the treadmill – even gentle physical exercise is good for brain recovery. David’s psychologist recommended a brisk walk of 45 minutes, five to seven times a week. “In the beginning, I could not walk up steep hills and couldn’t even bend down as the stroke affected my equilibrium. But I got stronger and after six months, I went back to swimming and gently challenged myself to do things I could cope with.
I can now do everything I did before – even yoga, which was too difficult for years because of raising my head up and down.” Exercise improves brain function because it brings in more oxygen to the brain and raises levels of the brain chemicals serotonin and endorphins (particularly when done with others), which promote a positive mood. It also disperses stress hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.
These are good on two fronts. Doing an activity you enjoy will increase levels of the positive chemicals serotonin and oxytocin in the brain and will also distract you by taking conscious attention away from the difficulties you’re facing.
But learning a new activity or skill is even better because it challenges the brain, not only keeping existing neurons alive but also creating new neural connections and triggering neurogenesis – the birth of new neurons. David started doing guitar duets with a friend and also took singing lessons: “The more you can challenge your brain and get different parts of it working together, the fitter your brain will be.”
This is critical for brain function – both for relieving stress and sending information into the long-term memory. During sleep, the brain sifts through its short-term memories of the day’s events, consolidating the important ones into long-term memories.
And the REM or dream phase helps the growth of new neurons and myelin, the layer of insulation around each neuron. “People with brain injuries need to be allowed to do a lot of sleeping, including during the day. Sleep is the body’s way of healing,” says David. During the day, he was advised to rest every 90 to 120 minutes – the natural length of each rest-activity cycle – to avoid being overwhelmed by new information.
Listening to music is a little bit of magic for the brain, as countless studies have proved. Scientists believe it’s because music activates lots of brain regions at once – attention, memory, verbal, emotion and meaning. One study in Finland among stroke patients who listened to music every day for two months found they had better verbal memory and focused attention after the trial.
They were also less depressed. It’s even better for the brain to make music. David found singing lessons invaluable. “I found I could still sing even though I lost a lot of words after the stroke. As your body is your instrument with singing, you need to be tuned into your posture and diaphragm – upright and square, not hang-dog and despondent. It wakes up your whole body and releases tension. It’s also been shown that singing in a choir syncs your brainwave patterns with others so their mood will lift yours.”
You’re aiming to eat a balanced diet with a focus on foods that are proven to be good for the brain. These include the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, which can promote neuronal growth, improve mood and slow down cognitive decline.
David was also advised by his doctor to take vitamin B and E supplements. He also drinks green tea regularly and eats cranberries, blueberries and beetroot for their antioxidant properties. The Stroke Association doesn’t recommend any particular supplements, but advises cutting back on salt to minimise the risk of another stroke.
Image Credit: addicted2success.com