Teen-brains and alcohol

Nicola - Thursday, October 30, 2014

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I have been witness to many conversations between parents about when to introduce alcohol to their children. Some follow the ‘European’ model of introducing alcohol early with family meals, some make it readily available for teen social occasions, and others have a parenting policy to delay the first drink until at least 18. The ideal option is the latter. Teen brains are not fully developed until they are in fact no longer teens- approximately age 25.

Everyone I have seen for alcohol issues as an adult had their first drink as a young teen – and that drink has usually been from a relative like an older sibling, uncle at Christmas, parent’s friend, and most often their parent.

Research clearly indicates that the younger teens are when they begin to consume alcohol the greater the possibility that alcohol will interfere with brain maturation and the greater risk of alcoholism in adulthood.

Because alcohol consumption is so prevalent and normalised in our society people forget that it is neuro-toxic – brain poisoning in simpler terms.

When is the best time to offer brain-poison to your child?  Alcohol in teens is linked to impulsivity, behavioural disturbance, and cognitive impairments such as memory problems and poor problem solving. Years of research demonstrates that heavy drinking causes long-term and sometimes permanent damage to the brain, but recent research also suggests that in teens structural changes may begin to occur early due to their brain developmental stage. Invest in the brain power of young people and delay the toxic effect of alcohol.

• Teach teens about alcohol content variation- one bottle of vodka is not the same as one bottle of beer- you might laugh but I know that confusion landed one young person in ICU unconscious getting thier stomach pumped before alcohol killed them
• Model appropriate drinking behaviour – we must stop the binge culture of drink to be drunk
• Teach teens and young adults strategies to say no and manage peer pressure to drink alcohol
• Remind young people heading off to Schoolies that their brain is their greatest asset for their future.

Prevent dementia

Nicola - Friday, October 17, 2014

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It is fantastic that since the 1800’s human life expectancy has almost doubled due to improved diet and medical advances including immunisations, antibiotics and other medicines and surgical treatment. However, increased life span brings new risks – specifically chronic diseases including dementia. An article in the prestigious and renown Lancet Neurology clearly identified that life-style contributes significantly to the risk of dementia. Whilst getting older is inevitable, dementia is not.

The cliché ‘what is good for your heart is good for your brain’ is true as five life-style culprits for dementia are: midlife obesity, diabetes mellitus, midlife hypertension, smoking and physical inactivity. All these factors impact the heart and then due to compromised cardio-vascular health they then impact brain health. However research now indicates that these factors also directly impact the brain- which means they hit you twice – once via your heart health and once directly.

The other two factors are depression and low educational attainment. These impact the brain in different ways. Chronic depression leads to excessive cortisol which is part of the stress response, resulting in lower growth factors in the brain and the death of brain cells in the memory system. Low educational attainment is a problem because brains ‘grow’ with novel challenges and new learning opportunities.

If you are going to live a long time you need to have a healthy functioning brain operating on all cylinders. You can’t wait until you retire to get it right – ageing well takes a life time, and research indicates that by age 30-40 years habits really start to count. To invest in your brain health and reduce dementia risk start by getting these six things right and live a long life with a younger brain:

  • Exercise daily
  • Keep a healthy weight
  • Stop smoking- if the stop cancer message hasn’t worked yet add on stop dementia
  • Manage hypertension and cholesterol
  • Reduce stress and seek psychological intervention for depression and mental health issues
  • Keep learning

When things go right

Nicola - Friday, October 3, 2014

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So often we focus on ‘when things go wrong’ but we need to equally focus on ‘when things go right’.  Our emotions provide an important function by breaking into our conscious awareness so we pay attention.  Mindfulness is paying attention- and that means to the good too. When we feel positive emotions like joy, happiness, delight and we are unselfconscious or care free, our emotions are there to help us learn what makes us feel good.  Being mindful (giving things our attention) ensures that we become aware of the magic ingredients that give us those positive feelings so we repeat them.  They are what we in my family call “do again moments”.

  • Savour the joys.  Relish the good by giving your wonderful experiences your full attention as this builds a rich memory trace that you can ‘replay’ or re-experiencing all those positive feelings again and again.  Be mindful of the who, what, where, how, and the full sensory / physical experience.
  • Build a positive list.  Keep track of the things that make you happy.  So often when life gets tricky, or stress and depression come knocking, people cannot remember who / what / where gives them positive emotional experiences.  Keep a list so you always know what to do when you feel blue.
  • Schedule fun days.  A great family day (or one with friends) that breaks the routine and has everyone sharing an adventure is priceless for building positive relationships.  Get each family member to write down a few activities / adventures that interest them, such as ice skating, horse riding, theme park, museum trip, ferry rides, yum cha, and then schedule one per month for the year.
  • Establish a play date.  I do not mean play-dates for children but those for yourself.  Rather than catching up with friends at the pub, club or restaurant, arrange a fun activity to do with friends such as tenpin bowling, laser tag, rock climbing, bush walking, or even volunteering as a group at the soup kitchen or other charity that needs your support.
  • Let your inner child out to play.  Be spontaneous and playful and do the things you enjoyed as a child such as going roller- blading, climbing a tree, dolphin diving in the waves, having a skipping race, learning to juggle, having a big kids pyjama party and watching old movies, playing board games, or building sandcastles.  Enjoy the delight, laughter and smiles.