Brain Health: Rethinking the Stigma of Dementia

February 26, 2014 Updated: February 27, 2014

In a bid to promote brain health, allay fears over memory loss, and tackle the stigma associated with dementia, researchers at Dublin’s Trinity College have developed a series of 10 short animated videos on the topic.

Dementia is a growing issue in Ireland: while over 40,000 people currently live with the disorder, that figure looks set to increase more than threefold over the next 30 years.

Due to an array of misconceptions, dementia has come to be stigmatised within society, and the videos aim to allay those misunderstandings and encourage activities than maintain brain health.

The FreeDem films project has been developed by the Neuro-Enhancement for Independent Lives (NEIL) Programme at Trinity’s Institute of Neuroscience, and the films are available online as well as on DVD.

Dr Sabina Brennan, Assistant Director of Trinity’s NEIL Programme, said that the stigma associated with dementia leads to discrimination, depression, social isolation, delayed health-seeking behaviour, and other negative outcomes. 

“Stigma prevents open discussion, and promotes the false belief that nothing can be done for people with dementia,” she said. “The problems created by stigma are serious but the solution may be simple – stigma can be reduced through the provision of accurate information about the disease, through the clarification of misconceptions, and through the communication of empathetic feeling towards individuals diagnosed with the disease.”

A lack of understanding of how memory works means that people mistakenly accept memory loss as an inevitable consequence of normal ageing and fail to seek medical opinion, resulting in other diseases or disorders that can affect memory function (e.g. diabetes, hypertension) remaining undiagnosed.

How to Maintain Brain Health

Brain health is inseparably connected to our physical health, the health of our body. According to the research team at Trinity, physical exercise not only helps the heart, but can increase the size of your hippocampus, the part of the brain crucial to making memories. Physical exercise also encourages the growth of neural connections and new brain cells. 

Social activity is also crucial, especially as we get older: a growing body of evidence suggests that those people who manage to avoid getting lonely also reduce their risk of cognitive decline.

Three great ways to keep your brain stimulated are:

1. Give yourself a challenge: The satisfaction you get from doing things slightly beyond your comfort zone actually changes your brain chemistry, making you feel more positive. 

2. Embrace change: Novelty keeps your brain fit. So it’s good to experience new things, take on new situations, and meet new people. Doing this will keep you fresh well into the future. 

3. Learn something new: Learning encourages the growth of new brain cells and stimulates the connections between them. Stronger brain connections also help keep your brain healthy.

How is my Memory?

A memory problem does not necessarily signify a neural problem – memory lapses are normal parts of everyday life. However, here are some good reasons for visiting your doctor:

– If you get disoriented about where you are, or what time of day it is;

– If you get lost in a place you’ve been familiar with for years;

– If you start repeating the same story every day, without realising it.

If the problems are interfering with life at home or at work, or are affecting your quality of life, they should be tackled. Some memory problems are treatable and even reversible. This is because they may be the symptom of another underlying condition such as stress, excessive alcohol use, anxiety or depression, or even some medication that you are taking.