It’s time to make the brain the guest of honour

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By Tanya Franks | Tuesday 25 May 2021

Actress Tanya Franks (EastEnders, Broadchurch, Pulling) shares her family’s experiences of Alzheimer’s disease, how she balances her work with her passion for running, and why she feels a focus on brain health is long overdue.

 

My stepfather Derek has Alzheimer’s. He was diagnosed in 2013 and now day-to-day things that we take for granted have become much more difficult for him.

My mum is his fulltime carer and they deal with it brilliantly. As a family we talk about it a lot, we try to focus on the positives and laugh together as much as possible.

But when you experience dementia first-hand, and of course you become emotionally affected, you start to realise the full weight of the problem.

So when I was asked if I would like to run the London Marathon as part of Dementia Revolution in 2019 – supporting dementia research and standing with Dame Barbara Windsor – I jumped at the chance.

Tanya Franks in a dementia revolution hoodie

I’ve always been an active person, but I had never run before that. I remember the first time I went out and ran about a quarter of a mile, came back and threw myself onto the floor. I thought ‘what have I agreed to? This is madness!’.

My lightbulb moment came when a friend said to me ‘you know you don’t have to run fast? It still counts if you run slowly!’. I thought that was brilliant! It gave me the confidence I needed to go for it and the marathon turned out to be one of the very best days of my life.

After that I was hooked. For me, it’s a great way to look after my body and brain, and makes me feel good mentally. I aim to run two or three times a week but I don’t really have a routine. I’m not someone who enjoys getting up really early to exercise, I just seize the opportunity when I can, fitting it in around filming and everything else.

Of course, running’s not for everyone. I think it’s important to find something you enjoy that works with your routine. Being active for your body and brain doesn’t have to mean running or going to the gym for an hour three or four times a week. You can do that, but you don’t have to.

Sadly, most of us now have experience of Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia through our family, friends, or others we know. And the number of people affected keeps increasing. This is why I think we need a two-pronged attack; working to find a cure and also increasing our focus on prevention so that in future families won’t have to go through this.

We know that the diseases that lead to dementia can start ten, twenty years before we see symptoms and seek a diagnosis, so helping people of all ages better understand dementia risk is key.

Campaigns like Think Brain Health are so important in sharing this information, reminding us of the things that we can all do – like being physically active, thinking about our diet and looking after our mental health.

I’ve tried to learn as much as possible about dementia since my stepfather was diagnosed and I’ve been inspired to do what I can to help promote the importance of risk reduction.

I feel that historically, because it’s not as tangible as other aspects of our health, the brain has been the guest at the party that’s been left in the corner. I think it’s time for it to be the guest of honour.

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Tanya Franks