Dr Helena Popovic is a medical doctor, leading authority on improving brain function, best-selling author, international speaker and media commentator.
Dr Helena Popovic is a medical doctor, leading authority on improving brain function, best-selling author, international speaker and media commentator.

8 steps to boosting your brain power, beating dementia

Dr Helena Popovic is a medical doctor, leading authority on how to improve brain function, best-selling author and international speaker.

Her philosophy is that education is more powerful than medication and she educates people on how to keep their brain in optimal working order and how to reduce their risk of developing dementia.

She shows people how to shed excess body fat without resorting to diets, deprivation, denial or discipline and she trains aged care workers in how to best care for people with dementia.

The inspirational Gold Coast-based author was one of the guests at the recent Wired for Wonder event in Sydney and Melbourne.

News Regional Media put some questions to Dr Popovic on subjects ranging from weight loss to dementia.

What are some of your key tips to boosting brain function?

1. Prioritise getting a good night's sleep - every night.  Sleep deprivation impairs concentration, memory, mood and reasoning ability.  It slows our processing speed and makes it harder to solve problems.  We take much longer to learn something - if we manage to grasp it at all. 

We all know that sleep is important, but we nonetheless often try to operate in a sleep-deprived state.  After 17 hours of wakefulness, the brain functions as though we had a blood alcohol reading of 0.5% - we are working as though intoxicated. 

The average Australian accumulates two weeks of sleep loss every year and in the US, the effects of sleep deprivation are estimated to cost business more than $100 billion annually. 

Yet despite the importance of sleep, there is no universal optimal number of hours - our need for sleep is very individual and changes with age.  So find out how many hours you need to function at your best and then allow yourself to get them.

2. Be aware that we have a biological drive for an afternoon nap - regardless of whether or not we had a good night's sleep. 

Between about two and four in the afternoon, our brain waves slow down, our body temperature drops and we feel transiently sleepy. 

A NASA study found that a pilot's performance improved by 34% after a 26 minute nap.  A big lunch, loaded with carbohydrates can increase the urge to have a kip. 

If your boss won't let you have an afternoon siesta, at least know that this is when everyone is at their least productive.  So don't schedule important meetings, brain storming sessions or tackling your hardest tasks during this time. 

3. Beware the chair!  Sitting has become the new smoking.  Australian Professors Emily Banks and David Dunstan followed 200 000 people aged 45 and over for a 3 year period and found that those who sat for 11 or more hours a day had a 40% increased risk of early death compared with those who sat for less than four hours a day. 

Those who sat for eight hours a day, were 15% more likely to die early.  And scientists at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana analysed the lifestyles of more than 17,000 men and women for 13 years, and found that people who sit for most of the day are 54% more likely to die of heart attacks. 

The bad news is that an hour at the gym before or after 11 hours of sitting does not counteract the negative effects of sitting.  However, getting up out of your chair for just 2 minutes every 20 minutes to simply stretch your legs and wander around, DOES cancel out the health hazards of sitting! 

That's great news - so stand up right now while you read this!

4. Schedule at least 20 minutes of exercise every second day - preferably every day - and you will gain back more than your 20 minutes in terms of increased effectiveness and productivity. 

The brain needs the body to move.  Whenever we move we produce a chemical called BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor) which acts like a fertiliser for brain cells.  BDNF stimulates the growth of new brain cells and the formation of new connections between existing brain cells.

  A German study found that 20 minutes on a treadmill boosted language learning by 20%.  Countless studies throughout the world have found that after 20 minutes of exercise, our brain performs better in every area tested - attention, memory, problem solving, decision-making and dealing with stress. 

People who exercise on a regular basis have more energy and better reasoning power than those with sedentary lifestyles. 

A Western Australian study found that a walk a day keeps memory loss away and one hour of exercise a day is as powerful as Prozac in the treatment of depression. 

Combining weight-training with cardiovascular exercise confers even greater cognitive benefits.

5. Prioritise prioritising!  Mental tasks such as planning, decision-making, coming up with new ideas, writing proposals and answering tough questions use up a lot of cerebral energy, and this is a finite resource.

In the same way that running saps our physical energy, heavy thinking drains our mental energy.  If you've just made a difficult decision, making the next decision will seem more onerous because you've used up a considerable amount of glucose (your brain's fuel). 

To work effectively for a sustained period of time, begin the day by prioritising your most demanding tasks when you are freshest and most alert - either first thing in the morning or after a break or exercise. 

Then alternate mentally demanding activities with routine tasks to allow your brain to recover for the next demanding activity.  It's similar to going to the gym and alternating upper body with lower body exercises.

There is a reason you can’t stop thinking unwanted thoughts.
There is a reason you can’t stop thinking unwanted thoughts.

6. The human brain is only capable of focusing conscious attention one thing at a time.  We are unable to consciously take in information from two different sources simultaneously. 

If you're reading and talking on the phone, your brain is forced to rapidly switch attention between the two tasks.  Each time your brain makes the switch, it loses information from one or other source and increases the likelihood of making a mistake.  In addition, disengaging from one task to another consumes time and energy.

  Research has found that a person who is interrupted takes 50% longer to finish the job and makes up to 50% more errors.  Experiments have shown that asking a Harvard University graduate to do two things at once (be they male or female) turns their brain into that of an eight year old! 

The scientific term for this is "dual-task interference" and it means that if you want to increase your accuracy and effectiveness and reduce your mental fatigue, don't divide your attention.  Do one thing at a time and put your full attention on what you are doing.

Nicholas Falconer

7.   Get 10 minutes of sunshine every day without sunscreen, particularly in winter and preferably in the middle of the day.  The sun is our best source of vitamin D and vitamin D deficiency has been associated with a decline in cognitive function. 

In a six year study of 858 adults aged 65 years and older, those with the lowest blood levels of vitamin D were 60% more likely than those with normal vitamin D levels to show signs of general cognitive decline. 

They were also 31% more likely to have difficulty with planning, organising and prioritising.  The light available in the home and workplace also has an impact on the brain.  Bright lights increase alertness and ability to pay attention.

  A US study of elderly people in residential care found that in homes with bright lighting, residents had better cognition, mood and sleeping habits compared with those where the lighting was dim.

8. Love your work!  Remain enthusiastic, excited and passionate about it.  Passion is more than a feeling.  Excitement and passion alter our brain chemistry through the production of neurotransmitters - dopamine, acetylcholine and noradrenaline - to spark creativity, strengthen focus and energise every aspect of thinking.

  Dopamine and acetylcholine help to consolidate the changes we make in our brains whenever we learn a new skill.  The more dopamine and acetylcholine we have in our brains when we're trying to learn something, the more easily we learn it. 

Hence when we enjoy something we learn it more quickly.  Studies have also demonstrated that aspirations turn on our brain cells much more powerfully than needs.

When people are attached to a brain scanner and then asked to think of things they aspire to do, more of their brain cells start firing than when they think of things they need to do.

  To what do you aspire in your personal and professional life?  Go and do it - your aspirations are the most powerful things to boost your brain and overall health and wellbeing.

How is the mind more powerful than medication in battling health problems? Where do you draw the line?

       Our attitude to ageing has a measurable effect on our longevity and brain performance. 

In a 2002 research paper, Becca Levy recorded that people with more positive perceptions of ageing lived an average of seven-and-a-half years longer than people who felt negatively about ageing.

  This was after gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness and overall health were taken into account.  In fact, the effect of a positive attitude on survival was greater than the effect of a healthy lifestyle!

  Having low blood pressure, normal cholesterol levels and never smoking each added around four extra years to life - only half of what having a life-affirming optimistic outlook gives. 

What's more, the effects of encouraging statements were found to be immediate as well as long term.  Elderly people exposed to positive and constructive messages about ageing immediately before a series of memory tests, performed better than individuals told or shown something negative in relation to ageing. 

Even just having sanguine words flashed in front of them momentarily, without the individual being consciously aware of it, led to higher scores.  

       What we believe about ourselves can rewire our brains so that we become who we think.


In dealing with people who are overweight, what is your approach? What are some practical steps someone can take today?

1.) Instead of focusing on WHAT you should be eating, turn your attention to WHY you are eating. At least 30% of our eating is non-hungry eating.

We eat because we're sad, angry, bored, lonely, stressed, depressed, procrastinating, celebrating, commiserating, deliberating, the list is endless.

If you eat when you're not hungry, your body doesn't need the energy and will store it as excess body fat. Therefore before you reach for food, ask yourself 'Am I really hungry or am I trying to change how I'm feeling?'

2.) When you eat, just eat. Don't be doing anything else because the brain can only focus on one thing at a time and you'll miss the signals from your body about whether or not the food actually agrees with you and how much of it you need.

Pay attention to the smell, texture and subtleties of flavour. You'll enjoy your food more but end up eating less because you're satisfied sooner.

The more we taste, the less we need. This blows people away. Most people think that the more they enjoy their food, the more they will eat. The opposite is true. The secret is to savour every mouthful.

3.) Learn to eat until you're 80% full. The Japanese call this 'hara hachi bu'. The reason is that it takes about 20 minutes for the many signals from your gut and fat cells to reach your brain and tell you that you've had enough.

So if you eat until you're 80% full, in 20 minutes you'll find you're actually 100% full and you'll be glad you stopped when you did.

We are in an age of information and technology overload. What's your advice to people on that?

Learn to take mini meditations throughout each day. Close your eyes and just listen to the sounds around you for one minute. Or follow your breath as the air enters your nostrils, flows into your lungs and travels back out.

This calms and clears the mind so that your concentration is restored and your energy levels get a boost. 

The other important antidote to information and technology overload is spending time in nature - nature is a great healer and balancer. 

When we're feeling stressed or anxious, nature calms us down.  When we're feeling mentally or physically fatigued, nature re-energises us. 

Kondalilla Falls: Kondalilla Falls, as shot using a Nikon KeyMission 80 camera.
Kondalilla Falls: Kondalilla Falls, as shot using a Nikon KeyMission 80 camera.

If you're stuck on a problem, take a break and go for a walk along the beach, in the bush or any patch of green you can find.  Don't think about what you're trying to solve.  Instead, focus on your surroundings, take in the natural environment, smell the wattle and listen to the rustling leaves. 

Simply "be" in the present moment.  We need to remind ourselves that we are human beings not human doings. 

Meanwhile your subconscious mind will be working through the problem, and by the time you get back to your desk, you may be surprised at the answers that emerge.  The more often you do this, the more effective your brain will become at coming up with solutions while you walk.

Age care dementia patients use VR: With a little help from Samsung VR technology, these aged care patients with dementia were finally able to fulfil their bucket lists!
Age care dementia patients use VR: With a little help from Samsung VR technology, these aged care patients with dementia were finally able to fulfil their bucket lists!

Dementia is a huge health issue in Australia, what are some of your tips on that?

Research has now confirmed that most (but not all) cases of dementia (including the most common type of dementia, Alzheimer's disease) are due to lifestyle and not genetics.

This is very empowering because it means if people follow the 8 tips I gave in answer to Question 1 (to boosting brain function) they will go a long way to reducing their risk of dementia.

In addition it's critical to avoid eating junk food, processed food, added sugar and seed oils. Eat real whole food with and include green plants with most meals.

Maintaining meaningful relationships and staying socially active will also HALVE a person's risk of developing dementia. Loneliness and chronic depression are big risk factors for developing dementia.

Dementia takes decades to develop and it's never too early to start to look after our brains.

Dementia patients with children
Dementia patients with children

Can you tell us a bit about your own father's battle with dementia? How has that impacted your approach to it.

First and foremost I do not use the word 'battle'.

Using language that connotes conflict and stress is damaging to the brain because it triggers the production of cortisol (the stress hormone), which kills brain cells in the hippocampus (the learning and memory centre of the brain).

It's critical to use reassuring and calming language at all times.

The most important aspect of looking after my father (and anyone who has dementia) is to continue to give the person a sense of meaning and purpose.

My father waters the plants, carries the shopping and accompanies me to the post office so that he feels he is making a positive contribution to my life.

I frequently ask him for advice and to tell me stories about his life even though I've heard the stories 100 times.

He doesn't remember telling me and it is a way of helping him retain his memories and his sense of self. A person never loses the need to be of value to others, even if they have dementia.

EXERCISE YOUR BRAIN: Physical and mental exercise have been shown to fight the onset of dementia.
EXERCISE YOUR BRAIN: Physical and mental exercise have been shown to fight the onset of dementia.

What are some practical tips for relatives of people dealing with dementia?

1. Self care is NOT selfish.  The better your health and energy levels, the more you are able to give to your loved one. I know this is a cliché but it is absolutely critical. 

2. Even if a person with dementia doesn't remember what you say or do for them, they remember how you make them feel. So the most important thing you can do is to be happy yourself and to find ways to make your loved one smile and laugh.

3. What music does the person with dementia enjoy? Music can be very powerful in bring a person with dementia to life.

4. Read my book In Search of My Father - Dementia is no match for a daughter's determination. It is a very practical guide book for all carers.

What about aged care workers - what do you say to them?

1. Give the people in your care your full attention whenever you are interacting with them in any way.
Draw out their stories and ask them questions to ascertain what is still important to them.

2. Read all the answers I've just given.

3. Read my book In Search of My Father - Dementia is no match for a daughter's determination. It is an invaluable resource for aged care workers as well as for relatives.

How do you deal with stress? How do you turn it into success?

Understand that much of the stress in our lives is caused by the conversations we have in our heads about a situation rather than the situation itself.

Therefore when you feel stressed, ask yourself: 'What perspective can I take that will help me overcome this challenge?'

Then get on with doing what you can and put all your attention on the present moment. Stress dissipates in the focused doing because you become too absorbed in the task at hand to remember to feel stressed!

What are some of the themes you spoke about at Wired for Wonder this year?

Gut bacteria predict our likelihood of developing obesity better than our genes.

Our bodies contain 100 trillion microorganisms, weighing over 2kg in our guts alone.

That's more than the weight of our brain (1.4kg)! Our gut bacteria play many essential roles in maintaining health: they are crucial to how we digest food, they control how many calories we absorb, they provide vital hormones, produce important vitamins and influence our mood and immune system.

The gut is even described as a 'second brain' because of the 100 million neurons lining its walls from oesophagus to rectum. That's about the same number of neurons as in the brain of a cat!

These nerve cells enable our gut bacteria to communicate with our brain via a long large nerve called the vagus. My presentation at CommBank's Wired for Wonder reveals what our gut bacteria are saying to our brain!


Dr Helena Popovic is a medical doctor, leading authority on improving brain function, best-selling author and international speaker.

Helena is the author of the inspiring book, In Search of My Father - Dementia is no match for a daughter's determination.

Her second book, NeuroSlimming - Let your brain change your body - won bronze medal in the international Living Now Awards.

You can subscribe to her blog at: www.drhelenapopovic.com