Dr Kerryn Phelps has traversed many arenas throughout her impressive career.
As a young medical school graduate in the 1970s, she went straight into medical politics, joining the Australian Medical Association. After heading the NSW branch as president, she then became president of the federal organisation to “institute change at a systemic level”.
Since then, she has been the Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney, won the safe-Liberal seat of Wentworth as an Independent candidate, and is now the Adjunct Professor at Sydney Medical School and Conjoint Professor at the University of New South Wales Medical Faculty.
In her fourth decade as a doctor, she has now authored a new book, “How To Keep Your Brain Young”, a brilliant guide on brain health. It provides a wealth of knowledge on preventing brain energy, the importance of sleep, good diet, the effects of menopause, and conception.
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I could do to contribute to the lives of others, and to enhance other people’s health and wellbeing”, Phelps told Angela Priestley on the Women’s Agenda podcast this week.
Phelps, who has written three previous books on health, became interested in exercise in her twenties, right at the beginning of aerobics. Little known fact: Phelps was an aerobics teacher while practising as a GP.
“Health isn’t just about dealing with the disease,” she says. “It’s about prevention, which is what my book is about.”
“It’s about what you can do to plan for a healthier now, and a healthier future for your brain.”
“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
Brain health is something a lot of people think and worry about.
In her decades long career as a GP, Phelps has seen many people worried about somebody in their family who has cognitive problems.
“They suspect that they’re developing dementia,” Phelps says. “People going through traumatic times in their lives worry about the effect that that’s having on their ability to think clearly on anxiety, on depression.”
She also discovered during her personal research that there was a gap on published information regarding brain health, accessible for everyone.
“There’s a lot in the medical literature, but there hasn’t been a lot published for people to actually take a preventive approach to their brain health,” she explains. “And so what I did was have a look at all of the aspects of things that people can actually do…basically starting at conception and going right through all of the stages.”
“We don’t yet know how how to prevent a lot of cases of dementia, but we can certainly maintain brain health by optimising it when we’re younger.”
“Things like looking at the amount of exercise you do, the amount of sleep that you get, the kind of nutrition that you feed your brain throughout life, avoiding toxins, like, cigarettes and alcohol, and illicit drugs. These are all the sorts of things that you can do to protect your brain function.”
“If people start losing their memory or losing their cognitive ability, it’s not too late to hold that decline.”
Stress and brain health
The pandemic has spiked our stress levels as we managed our careers and family obligations, relationships and the mental load that comes with having our normal activities restricted. Phelps believes the secret is to not be too hard on yourself.
“You need to be able to do what you can do,” she says.
“If it’s possible for you to find time in the day to do your exercise, then make that time. If you’ve got the possibility of being able to get out and get amongst nature, then that’s something that you can do. Stress does have an effect on the brain.”
“We know, for example, that one of the neurotransmitters or the chemical messengers in the brain is high [during stress] and cortisol levels are high in the body when you’re under stress.”
Phelps explains the stress-induced brain change that occurs when a stressful or traumatic event occurs.
“It actually creates some structural changes in the brain that change the function of that part of the brain. So that if later in life, you encounter a trigger that reminds you of that traumatic event, it’s as if you’re in that moment.”
She explains the concept of neuroplasticity and how it can be a positive remedy for future stress and negative thinking patterns.
“Neuroplasticity is the ability to change the structure and function of the brain. Through therapy, you can actually change the way that part of the brain functions so that you can heal from post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Ask for help when you need it
“Reach out and ask for help. Look at prioritising things. If there are responsibilities that you have in your life that you can delegate to other people, do it,” Phelps advises.
“It’s also important to look at stress management techniques like yoga or Tai chi or meditation mindfulness. Listening helps you and helps your brain to deal with the stresses that are on you.”
Find an activity you actually enjoy doing
So what about the link between physical health and brain health? What can she advise on the optimum physical activity levels for women?
“When we’re looking at brain health, the minimum amount of exercise you need to get the effect that you want as an adult is 30 minutes a day, five to six times a week,” Phelps says.
“The advice I always give people is the best type of exercise to do is the one you’re going to do. So it’s no point having great intentions because great intentions don’t keep you fit and don’t do any good.”
“I think it’s really important to match what you like doing. Find an activity that you like doing. Some people prefer to exercise alone. Others prefer to exercise in uh groups or pair, in pairs.”
“If you have any medical conditions, see a physiotherapist or a trainer or an exercise physiologist if you got medical conditions that make it difficult to exercise.”
“When some people think of the words “weight training”, they’re thinking of bodybuilding and sort of pumping iron,” Phelps says. But that image is not really accurate.
“If you go to a gym there are resistance machines, which will gradually increase weight, as you’re able to manage increased weights to a point. You can either use some light weights at home. You can use resistance bands. There are all sorts of ways of providing that resistance that we call resistance training or weight training.”
“Getting the blood pumping through your muscles, increasing your muscle strength, all of that is so important at every age. If somebody is older and they have difficulty doing some kinds of exercise than an exercise like Tai chi, for example, it is terrific for muscle strength for balance, and for stress management. And it has a positive impact on the brain as well.”
Everything achieved in Phelps’ career has been aimed at improving the health and wellbeing of people who need information.
“When I started working in the media back in the 1980s, the level of health literacy in the community wasn’t great, and people didn’t feel necessarily empowered to have those important informed conversations with their doctors about their health decisions.”
“It’s been interesting being able to see the evolution of evidence in the evolution of practice over all those years. I’m really fascinated to see where the next decade will take us.”
You can purchase your copy of “How To Keep Your Brain Young: Preserve memory, reduce dementia risk, harness neuroplasticity and restore function”, published by Pan Macmillan Australia, here.