Holistic approach could delay progression of degenerative brain disease, says professor

Music, dance, diet and exercise may be keys to slowing down dementia by up to five years, a New Zealand research group believes.

Brain Research NZ, a new collaborative centre of research excellence led by Auckland and Otago Universities, wants to recruit people later this year who have the first signs of dementia so that they can start a five-year "holistic" programme.

"I'm not just talking a single-drug therapy," said the centre's co-director Professor Richard Faull. "We know there are some drugs which may help to prolong and slow down degeneration.

"But we also know that certain foods - vitamin B, omega 3 - and exercise, music and cognitive therapy, if you put all those together, we know from overseas studies and our own studies that they can actually slow down the progression of the disease."

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He said it would take two years to enrol about 150 patients and carry out blood tests, psychological tests and magnetic resonance imaging of their brains.

"Then we have to bring together a package of therapy which may involve, for example, music, dance, all kinds of stimulation, computer games."

He said there was recent evidence that degeneration could be slowed by vitamin B, found in many unprocessed foods, and omega 3, found in fish and some plants. But in general, every food that was good for the heart was good for the brain.

"Above all else, what is really critical is keeping your brain stimulated with the things that you enjoy doing in life. It may be playing the piano, it may be reading," he said.

"Socialisation is also very important, staying in touch with people."

He said the programme could not help people with advanced dementia.

"It's impossible to turn around a person who is well advanced in terms of dementia or Alzheimer's disease because when they get into an advanced stage over a third of the brain has degenerated.

"So we are going to attack it right at the very earliest symptoms. If we slow down the progression of the disease by five years, we would cut the prevalence of Alzheimer's in New Zealand by 50 per cent because people would live longer and die of non-brain-related diseases."

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia. The number of New Zealanders with dementia is increasing rapidly as the population ages - up from 40,700 in 2008 to 48,200 in 2011 and projected to reach 150,000, or 2.6 per cent of the population, by 2050.

The Government has given the researchers $28.9 million over six years, but Dr Faull said they still needed to raise a further $1 million to set up clinics in Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin and eventually Wellington.

He welcomed a new US$150,000 ($198,000) annual prize announced yesterday for "the world's best advances that enhance quality of life for older people". The Ryman Prize, funded by an anonymous donor and administered by Ryman Healthcare, will be open to anyone in the world.

5 ways to dodge dementia

Look after your heart:

avoid high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.

Keep physically active:

walk, dance, play sports, anything you enjoy.

Eat a healthy diet:

fruit and vegetables, not processed food.

Challenge your brain:

learn new things, e.g. a new language, hobby or sport.

Socialise:

talking stimulates the brain.

- Source: www.aboutdementia.org.nz

Music keeps his little grey cells in tune

Jim Warren reckons that playing music has kept his brain totally alert for 96 years.

He has been a musician all his life. For decades, he worked in Auckland music stores by day and played trumpet and piano at night in a succession of bands including his own Jim Warren Sextet, the Auckland Neophonic Orchestra and the 1932 Jazz Orchestra, which recreated the jazz music of the 1930s 60 years later.

"I left the 1932 Jazz Orchestra when I turned 80."

Later he played for years in the coffee lounge at Selwyn Village in Pt Chevalier, where he lives with his wife Madeline, 93. The couple married 70 years ago this year.

He has often thought about how music has "kept the little grey cells going".

"I think that being a player where I make my own chords, I have got to think, where does that chord fit into the chord that's coming after?" he said.

"Also, through having played in dance bands over the years, I have learned hundreds and hundreds of tunes. Some of that I can still remember. I wake up in the morning with a tune in my head that I might have learned decades ago."

He has kept physically fit, too. "I used to go to the YMCA for 28 years until three years ago when I had a bit of a setback healthwise so I gave up the gym. I'm sure those 28 years have helped me to keep pretty healthy," he said.

"I eat pretty well. Nothing too fatty. I like fairly simple food, I'm not a takeaway man at all. It's generally pretty basic food; for example, last night we had fried salmon with salad and boiled potatoes."

He also allows himself a sociable drink.

"I usually have a beer before tea, sometimes a glass of wine," he said.

"I've never been a boozer, but I like a drink."