Train your brain and help with dementia research too
Want to help find a cure for Alzheimer’s? Recognii co-founder Sarah Harrison did, so she signed up to ‘Join Dementia Research’, an organisation matching people to relevant studies. The research she’s taking part in is a big undertaking, she says, but with surprising benefits. Here’s what happened…
I turned 50 this year, so true to a promise I made following my dad’s death from Alzheimer’s Disease in 2019, I recently signed up to Join Dementia Research.
Fundraising is a vital part of contributing to finding a cure, but so is giving your time and data to studies like this, if scientists are to understand this ruthless, cruel disease.
I was quickly invited to take part in a major 25-year research study by The University of Exeter, Kings College London and the NHS (www.protectstudy.org) into how healthy brains age and what causes people to develop dementia.
Setting up my PROTECT account was straight-forward and no sooner had I registered, a number of tasks appeared on my personal ‘dashboard’ with timescales for completion. I was given until Feb 2022 which even with my never-ending to-do list felt achievable!
I decided to tackle the lifestyle questionnaires first. These were very detailed, covering everything from medical history and physical fitness to diet, personality, daily activities, mental health, history of brain-injury and more. It took me around two and a half hours to complete (15 sections in total), but you can go at your own pace, break off and come back. They were mostly straightforward some took very little time and a few were optional.
Next was a series of cognitive exercises. I found I was strangely hesitant to start. I think I’m of at least average intelligence. On a good day I can complete a cryptic crossword and a (medium difficulty) Suduko puzzle. If I struggled, would I have to accept I’m not as sharp as I thought I was? Worse, would I start fearing the first signs of early onset?
When I ran out of excuses and reminded myself they were not tests to ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ I got stuck in and was relieved to discover that you get to take each series of tests three times – giving you the opportunity to practice and improve as you become more familiar with the format.
The very first challenge was surprisingly tough – one of those that involves shapes and colours but labelled the wrong way round. Like all of them you are pitted against the clock. I started strongly but a couple of unexpected wrong answers half-way through made me doubt whether I’d interpreted or remembered the instructions correctly and after that I pretty much lost the plot.
I found the next few tests a bit easier and though they still required fierce concentration my confidence increased and I (think) I did a little better.
I finished the first series of tests, which took around fifteen minutes, with a sigh of relief – but also the conviction that when I took them again I would do better. Even though each exercise had only lasted a few minutes I could already feel my brain flexing and gradually responding to being forced to think in a way it’s not used to.
You have to leave 24 hours between repeating each series of tests and sure enough, by my third try I was almost looking forward to it. What I hadn’t bargained for was the more adept you become the more the difficulty level increases. Again I started confidently but just when I thought I was smashing it, a dishearteningly long series of error bleeps said different - and I was back to mostly panic guessing.
MENSA definitely won’t be getting in touch any time soon – but presumably the clever people behind the project will study my responses, assess my brain’s current cognitive performance and then monitor any pattern of decline as I repeat the same tests over the next 25 years.
One of the major benefits of taking part is that it really got me thinking about the concept of brain health. I’ve always been sceptical about the link between brain-training and delaying or even preventing the onset of dementia, but if this experience has taught me anything it’s that the brain is definitely a muscle that can be exercised like other parts of the body.
Your PROTECT account gives you access to a wide range of brilliant brain-training games and activities which it turns out are surprisingly addictive. It’s been fascinating discovering which kinds of challenges I’m good and not so good at and very satisfying when I manage to improve on a previous score.
I’m still yet to be convinced that it can improve outcomes for everyone with dementia but I am much more open to the idea and have vowed to introduce some brain training activity alongside my (sporadic) physical fitness drives.
I’m so glad I signed up to the study. Long-term research like this is absolutely vital if we are to find out what causes this devastating disease and how to prevent and treat it. It feels good to be contributing and I’m learning a lot about myself along the way…
If you are interested in getting involved the best way to find out more is to visit Join Dementia Research (www.joindementiaresearch.nihr.ac.uk/).