Having a brain injury can increase your chances of dementia; here are activities to reduce your risk


The facts are scary. Research suggests people with traumatic brain injuries have a higher risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s Disease. The good news is research also suggests that by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and participating in key activities, the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia may be reduced by 50 per cent.

older adult sitting on a bench, looking at a dirt road

A healthy lifestyle includes doing what we’re all supposed to be doing anyway: maintaining a healthy diet, getting quality sleep and proper stress management.  

Here are three main types of activities that can prevent, slow and possibly even reverse cognitive deterioration:

Physical activities

Regular, moderately intense exercise is essential. Keep in mind that the definition of moderate exercise is different for everyone. If you exercise too lightly, you won’t reap the benefits from it, but if you push yourself too hard, you risk injuring yourself. Where possible, the exercise regimen should include cardiovascular, muscle strengthening, and balance exercises. Do what you can and do your best. For example, if you can only use your arms, then find endurance and strength training exercises that are tailored to your arms, shoulders, and back.

You can find examples of exercise routines from a chair, here.

Social activities

Face-to-face interaction is the best. You can be one-on-one or with a group of people as long as you are engaged in the exchange. You could join a club, volunteer, take a class, chat with a friend over coffee, go to a museum etc. If you aren’t able to go out, have a phone conversation or video chat with a friend.

You can also join our #BISTUESDAYS or #BISTEVENINGS activities! 

pexels-photo-84663Mentally challenging activities

There are many different types of brain training activities with varying difficulty. The greater the challenge and novelty, the better, but work your way up to more complex activities gradually. Here are just some suggestions:

  • learn something new (e.g. skill, language, musical instrument etc.)
  • change your habits (e.g. use your non-dominant hand, explore new routes, try different organizational systems for your things and electronic files, etc.)
  • play games (e.g. board games, card games, puzzles, crosswords, riddles, brain teasers, memory games, word or number games, math games, etc.)

two men walking by a beach on the board walk on a foggy day

Other important factors to take into consideration:

  1. The activities must be challenging and engaging, which means that they should be, at least, moderate in complexity or intensity. Remember to increase the level of difficulty of your activities as you improve.
  2. There must be variety in the activities, so that your brain is truly being challenged to form new neural connections. Adding variety to your regimen will also help to make your activities more fun, engaging, and challenging.
  3. The best results are achieved when a single task incorporates at least two of the three types of activities. For example, playing board games with other people is considered a social activity as well as a mentally challenging activity. Also, exercising with another person and playing a team sport have both physical and social components, making them better options than exercising by yourself.

I’d like to note that these strategies are also helpful in treating brain injuries, depression, and low self-esteem. So get active, try new things, connect with friends, and have fun with it!

Thank you to Dr. Emily Nalder for presenting this information at BIST’s Aging and the Brain seminar in February, 2015.

‘Mind Yourself with Alison’ is a collection of self-help tips, research, and personal experiences dedicated to helping people thrive after brain injury (or other trauma). Check out Alison’s other BIST Blog articles Women and Brain Injury: What you need to know and How to be a Good Friend to a Survivor.


Q + A with the director of The Brain’s Way of Healing

Tonight on CBC’s The Nature of Things, everyone’s favourite neuroplasticity expert and author of The Brain’s Way of Healing ItselfDr. Norman Doidge, will take us on a visual exploration of his work in a documentary, The Brain’s Way of Healing.


BIST had the chance to interview the documentary’s director-writer, Andrew Gregg of 90th Parallel Productions about the film:

BIST: Many of our members are very familiar with Dr. Doidge’s books, and follow his methods. What can they expect to get out of this film?

AG: I think if they’ve read The Brain’s Way of Healing they’re going to actually be able to meet the people they’ve read about in the books. I know you meet them in the books, but you get to see them and you get to see lab footage and home videos before they found whatever treatment they found that was going to help them.

You basically get to put a voice and a face to the names you’ve read about. And the doctors and scientists that are mentioned in the books you get to meet them them as well.


BIST: What about for people who are not familiar with Dr. Doidge’s work?

AG: I think it’s a universal idea that there’s always a chance that ‘something’s going to go wrong’ and you’re going to find out from a doctor or a scientist that’s going to say, ‘Sorry there’s nothing we can do for you.’

That was the same for every single person we met in this story, [they were told], ‘nothing can be done for you.’

What these stories show is that it’s not the case anymore. By using the brain’s own plasticity there are new ways of healing that we never thought possible.

Hopelessness actually can be turned into hope pretty quickly and I think for all these people to be able to find a way to deal with whatever affliction that was presented to them, you can just see in their faces and in their stories these amazing, grateful feelings of how fortunate they are.

BIST: How accessible are the treatments portrayed in the documentary?

AG: I think that I would take that question back one step further and put myself in the situation of these people that had to seek out the treatments themselves. The people in the film really had to work hard and a lot of them benefited from Dr. Doidge’s previous book, [The Brain that Changes Itself].

I think that by showing their stories it helps the next set of people who are looking for help, it helps narrow down the search.

I think [Dr. Doidge’s] book and this film, for anyone who is looking of answers it’s going to make it that much easier.


BIST:  What, for you, was the biggest thing you took away from working with Dr. Doidge?

AG: The idea of going from hopelessness to hope was so prevalent in the film. Some of these things happen so quickly, like with Jeri and Cathie, who participated in the study at the University of Wisconsin.

They had both suffered a traumatic  brain injury in a car accident and were basically laid up for five years, and thought that was the going to be the rest of their lives. They got themselves got up from Champaign, Illinois for the first treatment and all of a sudden they were standing and walking.

There are these instance of switches being flipped. … [Its’] proof of neuroplasticity, that the brain is there and it is able to be valuable, it just needs the right signals.

That is amazing to me. It’s nice to have a feel good story for a change.



The Brain’s Way of Healing airs tonight on CBC at 8 pm EST – and can be streamed (IN CANADA ONLY) online HERE.

Neuroplasticity + Brain Fitness: Q + A with Dr. Peter Rumney of Holland Bloorview


On October 15th, BIST is hosting a free speaker forum on Neuroplasticity and Brain Fitness, with Dr. Peter Rumney, the physician director of Brain Injury Rehabilitation Team at Holland Bloorview; Dr. Robin Green, Canada Research Chair and Senior Scientist at Toronto Rehabilitation Insitute; Paul Hyman, President and CEO of Brain Fitness International and Anthony Aquan-Assee, TBI survivor, teacher, author and motivational speaker.

Before the event, our blogger Karolina Urban spoke with Dr. Rumney about his talk.

Photo of Dr. Petery Rumney

KU: Why did you choose this topic to talk about?
Dr. Rumney: There is a lot of interest in trying to prevent, and /or avoid dementia, and why and what are the factors in being successful at this. Just like the old questions you used to have for someone who lived to be 100: what did you do to get there?

KU: What are the general thoughts about exercise and brain health?
Dr. Rumney: Research shows that some things are clearly helpful, such as regular exercise, healthy neuro-stimulation, healthy physical stimulation and being lucky enough to have good genes. The idea is to keep the brain well stimulated and well fed, meaning it has oxygen, good blood flow and nutrition. For example, when you damage the heart and vascular system by smoking, or abusing alcohol and drugs, then you have reduced blood flow. You want to make sure that you promote good circulation to the brain by keeping your heart healthy?.

KU: Are there any studies that have shown the clear link between exercise and prevention of dementia or Alzheimer’s?
Dr. Rumney: There are studies that have looked at elderly nuns in Italy. Here they saw that they seldom had issues of Alzheimer’s and one of the things they did was a lot of mental stimulation and crossword puzzles. It appears if you keep stimulating the brain to learn knew things, then it is helpful in maintaining function. However some individuals who have very taxing and cognitively demanding jobs could have quicker onset of dementia.

Some studies include a neuro-psychologist developing a comprehensive set of tasks for working memory, which have seen positive carry over to other activities that demand working memory. The nice thing is that, if you have improvement in working memory you can have improvement in attention and concentration.

Picture of a jump rope in the shape of a brain

KU: What about all these online gaming platforms aspiring to help maintain brain health?
A. Everybody knows Luminosity! But the question is whether these games succeed in doing what they tell you they do, such as reducing your brain age and cognitive fitness by getting faster and better at their games.

I don’t believe there is a lot of science to prove their claims, you know when you do those games you get better at those games and doesn’t mean you will be better at taxes, or conversing with your family. This “cross fit kind of idea” is to show where there is evidence or where there isn’t.

KU: You talk about increasing blood flow to the brain, are there specific exercises that can lead to that?
Dr. Rumney: From what I understand, it’s aerobic activities that are most likely to do it, [such as] running, walking, swimming and cycling. The other literature talks about what does a ‘lifestyle choice’ do in the long run. Walking is an easily done, low impact, low cost activity that is as effective as other ones, [though] you do have to walk longer.

KU: Can you tell me about regular exercise following acquired brain injury?
Dr. Rumney:We recognize that regular exercise for ABI can be very helpful. For some reason brain injury really doesn’t affect a person’s endurance over and above the deconditioning that happens following the injury. Keeping regularly active helps individuals maintain their energy and endurance, which helps naturally increase blood flow to the brain. It also helps the person sleep and good, healthy sleep is the best way for the brain to restore itself and learn new information.

We also know that individuals [who are living with a brain injury] are dealing with a lot of stress and there are positive effects of exercise and endorphins in dealing with stress.

[Brain injury survivors] also have trouble focusing attention. Burning off extra energy has a positive effect and increases their ability to focus. The question is, can we take the next step in prescribing types of therapy? For example, very old forms of therapy such as yoga and tai chi, [which are] slower, less aerobic types of activity, look at stretching, balancing and coordination and [along with] mindfulness and mediation. Helping individuals deal with pain and therapy, is actually quite safe and we are prescribing it.

Q. What’s your favorite activity or sport?
A. I like cycling, and my other interest is archery but it’s harder to do in the city. My other interests are art and carpentry. Other things are the study of music, musicians have positive overlap with right hemispheric function and learning a new language and may have positive effects.


 Karolina Urban is a former University of Toronto and Canadian Women’s Hockey League player. Currently she is a PhD student at the Concussion Centre in Holland Bloorview Kids Rehab Hospital.