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Changing brains: How we can fight the symptoms of dementia

Jackie Pool, Head of Memory Care and Programming at Sunrise Senior Living UK and Gracewell Healthcare

Jackie Pool, Head of Memory Care and Programming at Sunrise Senior Living UK and Gracewell Healthcare, makes the case for ‘rementia’ – the possibility of reversing the symptoms of dementia. 

Irreversible is a daunting word; it indicates finality, and no way back. However, as far back as the 1990s, a school of thought was developed which made the case against dementia being an irreversible condition, and which has sought to show how the symptoms, if not the diagnosis, of dementia can be reversed.

Followers of this school of thought, of which I am one, argue that the social and care context within which a person lives can have a considerable impact on the progress of dementia – and that there is even the possibility of some degree of ‘rementia.’

Rementia is the regaining of lost cognitive and functional abilities, when a more positive approach to dementia care is taken.

This view builds on the idea that society as a whole and individuals within that society can either enable or disable others by their attitudes and approaches. As the late Professor Tom Kitwood, a pioneer in the field of dementia care, said: If we lose faith in people with brain conditions, the chances of rementia are slim. And I would like to add to his wise words that with belief, will, knowledge, and skills, the chances of rementia are enormous.

You may be asking how it is possible for a damaged brain to repair itself.

It was once believed that as we aged, the brain’s networks became fixed. In the past two decades, however, an enormous amount of research has revealed that the brain never stops changing and adjusting. The brain is plastic, meaning it can re-organise itself by form­ing new con­nec­tions between brain cells – neurons – in response to new experiences.

In addi­tion to genetic fac­tors, the envi­ron­ment in which a per­son lives, and the actions of that per­son, play a role in plasticity. This can occur at the begin­ning of life, when the imma­ture brain orga­nises itself; throughout adult­hood, when­ever some­thing new is learned and memorised; and, in the case of brain injury, to com­pen­sate for lost func­tions or max­i­mize remain­ing functions.

A sur­pris­ing con­se­quence of neu­ro­plas­tic­ity is that the brain activ­ity asso­ci­ated with a given func­tion can move to a dif­fer­ent loca­tion as a con­se­quence of nor­mal expe­ri­ence, brain dam­age, or recovery. Therefore, changing your brain moves entirely into the realm of the possible.

To return to dementia care, evolving research on neuroplasticity and rementia demonstrates just how crucial it is that carers are given all the tools they need to help those living with dementia, particularly at an early stage.

A person-centred approach is at the heart of rementia. This means carers working to restore function by consciously supporting nutrition, emotions, and cognition, so that an individual no longer has the symptoms of dementia, has fewer symptoms, or has less disabling or distressing symptoms. In the next article, I will outline how lifestyle changes and the right care and support can help reverse symptoms, and how important it is to use emotional intelligence to develop supportive relationships with those living with dementia. 

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