Dementia is a growing medical phenomenon impacting more than 50 million people world-wide and adding some 10 million to its ranks annually. Costs are estimated to be at least $818 billion a year.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dementia is now the 7th leading cause of death world-wide. And although age is the strongest known risk factor for the disease, dementia is not a normal part of aging.
Neuropsychologist Dr. John DenBoer says he is on a mission to make a difference for dementia sufferers and their loved ones before the myriad of diseases that fall under the dementia umbrella cripple millions more people as well as the United States healthcare system. Along with the release of his documentary, “This is Dementia,” set to premier Thursday on Netflix, the Arizona-based dementia researcher founded Smart Brain Aging–a company that helps delay the onset of dementia and reduce its severity through a science-backed brain-training program.
DenBoer works in early-stage dementia detection, specializing in developing intervention mechanisms to help prevent the further development of the dementia process. This work led to his developing the SMART Memory Program®—a structured cognitive intervention system designed to help reduce dementia in its early stages.
A healthcare technology company, SMART Brain Aging, Inc. delivers research-supported programs, in-person and virtually, that DeBoer says reduce cognitive decline in aging brains. The company was incorporated in 2016.
The company currently offers two programs: Brain U Clinic and Brain U Online.
“Brain U Online is an online training program for your brain,” DenBoer said. “Research has shown that when we engage in new and novel learning and challenge our brains on a consistent basis, we are able to help protect and maintain the brain function that we have.”
Brain U Online assigns users specific training exercises a few days each week. DeBoer said users may get frustrated with the exercises at times; and this is a good thing. “Brain training is most effective when you are being challenged,” he said.
Users may choose to be placed into virtual classrooms with others. Virtual classrooms encourage socialization, which DenBoer said has been shown to have a positive influence on brain health.
DenBoer said Brain U Online was designed to be easy-to-use and accessible whenever and wherever users are most comfortable, whether that be with a desktop computer, laptop, tablet or cellphone.
Brain U Clinic, conversely, is where Brain U Online got its start. The program is delivered one-on-one with a healthcare professional in a clinical setting. Brain U Clinic is currently in multiple clinics in the Southwest, and DenBoer said it is continuing to grow. Its in-clinic services are covered by both Medicare and most commercial insurances.
According to WHO, dementia is an umbrella term for several diseases affecting memory, other cognitive abilities and behavior that interfere significantly with a person’s ability to maintain their activities of daily living.
One of the biggest myths about dementia is that it is a normal part of aging. “You can ask someone if they believe it, and they will tell you they don’t, but I think it’s a really deep-seeded, almost philosophical tenet that people hold that they believe dementia is inevitable,” he said. “We don’t treat heart disease or cancer or diabetes like that. People wouldn’t say those diseases are inevitable. Most people do preventative healthcare for those. Dementia really should be treated in that fashion.”
DenBoer said people should treat pre-dementia or Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) like they would if they were at risk for diabetes. “Those people take precautionary care about their diet and exercise to prevent the onset of diabetes,” he said. “They may still get it, but get it with less severity or may prolong its onset. It’s this disease of Mild Cognitive Impairment that occurs prior to any sort of diagnosis of dementia. It occurs 5 to 7 years or longer and develops in the brain without any noticeable signs. It starts developing in our fifties. So that’s the time between normal aging and MCI, when intervention can take place.”
According to DenBoer, some good times to start brain training include:
- When you retire and no longer have challenging tasks that require new learning.
- When you start to notice you’re forgetting things more frequently or differently than before.
- If you have no other significant tasks in your regular day that require your brain to do new things.
- If dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, runs in your family.
“The brain is still a significant mystery to even the most successful researchers, and as a group we are learning more every day,” DenBoer said. “Medication has been less than 5% effective in preventing or treating dementia. Almost every big Pharma company has stopped production of anti-dementia medication. In my opinion, we are still 30 to 40 years away from a cure and at least 15 to 20 years away from any significant medical intervention that will help.”
In the meantime, DenBoer’s company has taken its products to randomized double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trials with UCLA that he says have proven that his products “can help reduce the intensity of dementia by 40% and help delay the onset of the disease by 2.5 years.”
“Along with the countless research studies that are published on the benefits of challenging the brain in new and novel ways, we are conducting our own ongoing clinical research that began in 2013 with our first therapy method, our Brain U Clinic program, formerly named SMART Memory Program,” DenBoer said. “These studies have included thousands of research participants with a spectrum of brain health ranging from no signs of dementia to those with mild cognitive impairment all the way to those in early stages of dementia.” He said the studies showed improvements of cognitive scores (based on the Montreal Cognitive Assessment), sustained over time with regular use. Brain U Online was then created based on the efficacy seen with the Brain U Clinic program.
“Research shows that regularly and consistently challenging the brain in new ways can help slow the progression and onset of dementia,” DenBoer said. “Dementia is a complex disease and is continuously being studied. Brain U Clinic and Online training is just one component of a healthy brain.”
The key, says DenBoer, is learning “new” things. “People think somehow that using their brains as they get older will somehow help prevent dementia,” he said. “It’s not categorically untrue, but somewhat untrue. People try to keep their brains active, but they don’t do so in new and novel ways such as by learning a foreign language. They need to do something they have never done before because the brain adjusts and develops a tolerance like with drugs or alcohol. My grandma was still doing the New York Times Crossword puzzle up to Stage 3 of dementia.”
“New learning produces new neurons,” DenBoer said. “And when new neurons form, it helps release a series of chemicals in the brain that signals the rest of the grain to limit the shrinking that occurs. Our goal is to do new and novel learning to help prevent the brain from shrinking at an accelerated rate.”
DenBoer said if you are noticing signs or symptoms of memory loss that concern you, he recommends talking to a doctor as soon as possible. “Because dementia appears differently in different people, the key to diagnosis is the change that you see in your thinking and behavior,” he said. If your primary care physician doesn’t know how to diagnose or treat dementia, ask him/her for a recommendation to a clinical neuropsychologist or neurologist to take the next steps.
Brain U offers free trials to its programs. After the free trial is completed, users are given options to continue training for about $30 a month or $240 a year.
To find out more about bringing the Brain U Clinic program to your clinic, call our 855-BSMART-0. (855-276-2780)
For more information on the premier of “This is Dementia,” click here.