bookishness · health matters

A Brain for Life ~~ Book Review

A Brain for Life – how to optimise your brain’s health by making simple lifestyle changes now

By Nicola Gates, PhD

[Published by ABC Books]

a brain for life, dementia, alzeimers, health australia, being fifty-something, boomers, midlife health


Being fifty-something, I’m prone to an occasional “senior moment”. Every so often, I wonder if not being able to find my keys is a signal of something more sinister.

Last week I spent three hours in a dementia unit on a research/observation assignment for a client. It’s a small-sized, brand new unit. It’s progressive, people-centred, inclusive and caring – all the things you want in a specialist care facility.

But it’s also a place of sadness, loss, grief and confusion. I stared the coalface of dementia in its (distant) eyes and it’s a world away from my lost keys.

Interacting with staff, residents and families, my heart went out to them all as they navigated a path through a single day of living and working with this soul-sucking disease.

The stats on dementia rates are jaw-dropping. It’s the second-highest killer of Australians today.

According to this book, “… by as early as 2016, dementia is going to be the biggest cause of disease burden. The rates of dementia are between 5 and 15 per cent in 65 year olds, rising to 50 per cent in adults over age 85.”

There’s no known cure. How can we even hope to provide sound, people-centred care for numbers like that?

In A Brain for Life Neuropsychologist Nicola Gates explains how we can all reduce our risk of dementia by starting today with simple lifestyle changes.

I know what you’re thinking. I’ve read those articles, too. The light-weight ones that list seven tips for exercising your “brain muscle”. There’s always a daily Sudoku puzzle in the mix. And a brain-boosting superfood to whizz into your breakfast smoothie.

Having read Nicola’s book, I now know those articles don’t even crack the spine of the full story. They’re trifling in terms of the potential we have to influence our future brain health.

Nicola makes a powerful case for direct connections between dementia and a startling array of factors including genetics, gut health, weight, diabetes, cardio vascular health, elevated blood pressure, sleep, sun, stress, smoking, diet, exercise and more. Who knew?

She explains each factor in depth, using easy to grasp language while presenting scientific study results (referenced at the back) as evidence.

“Science Bites” in break-out boxes separate more technical material from the ready flow of the main content and real case studies (mostly Nicola’s patients) inject a compelling human element.

The book is broken into five parts:

  • Boosting Brain Health (diet, gut health, heart and more)
  • Building Brain Reserves (exercise, mental activity and social connectivity)
  • Reducing Brain Burden (stress and depression)
  • Developing a Wise Mind (a satisfying life and a positive “mindstyle”)
  • Managing With Dementia (signs, diagnosis, care and coping).

It’s info-laden with a strong hierarchy of over-arching data and information layering down to dozens and dozens of practical bullet-pointed steps that can help reduce your risk of dementia (and improve your overall health).

There are sections on managing alcohol intake, stress, exercise plans, dietary changes and much more. Strategies galore.

As someone of a certain age, with several of the dementia risk factors Nicola outlines, I got a bucket-load of takeaways from A Brain for Life including this:

“Insulin is so vital to the brain that type 2 diabetes is a serious risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Individuals with type 2 diabetes are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s dementia as those without diabetes, and multiple links or pathways have been identified.”

And this:

“Research suggests that simply increasing the amount of physical activity people perform by 25 per cent could potentially prevent one million future case of dementia worldwide!”

Nicola has cleverly framed the comprehensive information in digestible chunks for consumption  via either a linear path from front to back cover, or a dive-in-to-what-I-need approach.

She never sounds preachy and nor does she threaten the consequences of not taking your brain health by the horns.

Rather, she empowers you with the positive notion that you can reduce your risk of dementia through some relatively simple lifestyle adjustments over a period of time. No quick fixes, just a blue-print for turning the tide bit-by-bit to give yourself a better long-term health outlook.

Sure, it’s that “lifestyle change” theme we’ve heard before; some of it you’ll already know (or think you know). But there’s a ton of new stuff, too, and it’s all stitched together with a super compelling reason to get started. Today.

A final word from Nicola:

“The benefits of a healthy brain are gained any age – it is never too late to start.”


About Nicola Gates PhD

Nicola Gates PhD is a clinical neuropsychologist, neuroscientist, and conjoint lecturer with the Centre of Healthy Brain Ageing UNSW. She earned her Doctorate in Neuropsychiatry investigating physical exercise, cognitive training and psychological wellbeing for dementia prevention and continues to investigate health promotion and disease prevention. When not researching and promoting wellbeing Nicola continues to improve individuals’ lives through her private clinic Brain and Mind Psychology in Sydney.

Note: Has this piece prompted concern/distress for you or a loved one? The National Dementia Helpline 1800 100 500 (free call) provides telephone information and support services across Australia.

Disclosure: Nicola sent me a review copy of this book. Opinions are my own.

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