It is estimated that 150,000 people suffer a stroke every year in Britain, and around half are left with disabilities. While it isn’t possible to recover the parts of the brain damaged by the stroke, you can ‘rewire’ it so other parts take over.
David Roland, a clinical psychologist working in Australia, had a stroke in 2009. He was left with extensive cognitive problems, but was determined to use his academic background to find out the best routes back to health.
“In a cognitive sense, it’s true I am not back to where I was – I had a good memory and sharp analytical skills.
“But I have come a long way and in other senses, I am well ahead of where I was – in my ability to deal with life’s difficulties.”
Here is what David tried alongside medical treatments to help his recovery:
There are lots of brain training programmes and apps you can try on your computer or device. David said his progress with this was gradual, but he found all of a sudden he found the world easier to comprehend. Start on the easiest level and work your way up slowly.
Meditation and mindfulness have been shown to change the structure of the brain, strengthening the prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain). Meditating also helps to relax and stabilise the mind, which can be helpful when you’re retraining your brain.
David started with 10 minutes of meditation a day and eventually built this up to 30 minute sessions. He also says he tries to be mindful throughout the day.
“I’m impressed with how I can now watch my own thoughts and feelings come and go without getting irritated or annoyed, just accepting them.”
A rigorous exercise regime is not necessary during your recovery, even gentle exercise can help your recovery. Physical activity encourages more oxygen to go to the brain and boosts endorphins which lifts your mood. David started with 45-minute walks five days a week and gradually built yoga and swimming into his routine.
Our bodies heal when we sleep, making it essential for brain function. When we sleep our brain sifts though the memories of the day and consolidates the important ones into long-term memories. David says for this reason people with brain injuries need to be allowed to sleep a lot during their recovery, even during the day.
Scientists say music activates a lot of brain regions at once – memory, emotion, attention, verbal and meaning. One study in particular found that stroke patients who listened to music every day for two months had better verbal memory and better attention when the trial was over. It’s even better for the brain to make music, so if you enjoy singing or playing an instrument – start practicing.
Eating a balanced diet containing foods that are known to benefit brain function (such as omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil) can be valuable. David was advised to take vitamin B and E supplements and he also eats antioxidant-rich foods. Be sure to speak to your doctor before making any changes to your diet.