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Published on: December 22, 2016
by Suzanne Locke for The National:
As we live longer, we all hope to keep our brains healthy and our memories sharp for as long as possible. Yet, there are only so many Sudoku puzzles, crosswords and other brain games you can play. From singing to clearing up, here are five easy ways to exercise the mind.
Listening to music, playing a musical instrument and even singing can help keep the brain healthy, according to two UAE neurologists.
“Music can help the brain release dopamine, the feel-good chemical, which promotes the healthy functioning of the central nervous system, which, in turn, has an impact on emotion, perception and movement,” says Dr Arun Kumar Sharma, specialist neurologist at Medeor 24×7 Hospital in Dubai.
A study last year by the Sapienza University of Rome found that Mozart’s music had an effect on brainwave activity linked to memory, reasoning and problem-solving. Sharma says Indian ragas can have a similar effect. “Music cannot prevent or treat a disease, but it can definitely have an impact on how people cope with pain, insomnia and depression,” he says.
Learning something new, such as a musical instrument, will also maintain the health of brain cells and stimulate communication between them, says Dr Deepak Lachhwani, chief of neurology at the Neurological Institute of Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.
He believes that music helps to enhance brain memory because it “evokes strong emotions involved in memory formation”. Singing foreign-language phrases can even help the verbatim memory when learning a new language, he says.
Age is just a number
As we lead longer and longer lives, we not only need to invest in our education, but also widen the group of people we hang out with, says Andrew Scott, professor of economics at London Business School and co-author of the book The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity.
“Because people are living for longer they will be working for longer,” he says. “A 100-year life implies a 60-year career, and it is hard to think of anything we learn at 20 that will provide a competitive advantage over such a long career.” He says people will need to “invest substantially in their education”, which will mean taking time out more often in life and using leisure time for “re-creation” as much as recreation.
“Juvenescence – the art of ageing young – will be a skill of rising value,” Scott advises. “Becoming set in your ways will become more costly, compared to shorter lives.” As we age, our professional and social networks tend to become “uniform”, he warns, made up of people of a similar age, gender and occupation. “Making an effort to broaden networks and increase our exposure to different ways of thinking will be an important way of remaining mentally stimulated and lively.”
Brachiation is a fun way to develop the brain in children, says Tania Siddiqui, director of Masterminds Education nursery in Umm Suqeim, Dubai. And exactly what is brachiation? The arm-swinging motion seen in primates as they swing from tree to tree, or, for humans, more commonly on a monkey bars-style climbing frame.
Monkey bars can have a profound impact on brain development for children, says Siddiqui. “The skill involved in independently traversing an overhead ladder, hand over hand, literally exercises the left and right brain alternately,” she says.
“The left brain controls the right arm and the right brain controls the left arm. Developing strong coordination between the left and right hemispheres of the brain has far-reaching benefits for physical coordination as well as intellectual development.”
Children at Masterminds brachiate several times a day on specially designed ladders, and Siddiqui thinks this enhances intellectual skills such as reading and writing. At the same time, she says, using a monkey bar grows the chest, and the greater breathing capacity required helps provide more oxygen to the brain.
She says the biggest benefit is seen up to the age of 6, when the brain is still growing.
Tidy house, clear mind
Researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute have found that clutter makes people distracted and their brain less able to process information or focus.
In a 2011 report, they looked at task performance in an organised or disorganised environment, and found that physical clutter competes for your attention and results in lower performance, or, as they put it, “multiple stimuli” in your visual field make for “limited processing capacity of the visual system”. So a clean home, desk or inbox is key to a clear mind.
Professional organiser Regina Leeds, author of the One Year to an Organized Life series of books, says: “You are your environment. We can live in calm, peace-filled environments that nurture us, or we can choose to live in chaos and be thwarted in our best efforts at every turn.”
Usama Qasem, marketing manager for Ikea UAE, which has produced The Little Book of Big Changes to examine the connection between a tidy home and mental health, says: “We consider that tidiness can have a major impact on people’s peace of mind.
“If we spend, on average, five minutes a day looking for our keys, shoes, wallet and so on, it eventually adds up to a year of our life.”
A fine kettle of fish
Eating more fish for a good dose of omega-3 fatty acids could help if you’re feeling forgetful, says Dr Fiji Antony, a dietitian at the NMC Specialty Hospital in Dubai.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of three fats: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which the body cannot make on its own; docosahexaenoic acid (DHA); and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
The omega-3 acids are “essential for good brain health”, says Antony, and DHA – the most abundant in the brain – may help to improve memory in healthy young adults, while low levels have been associated with a greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Fish is the richest source, he says, so eat anything from anchovies and halibut to salmon and tuna, but avoid king mackerel, shark, swordfish and tilefish, because of their high levels of mercury. Seafood and algae are also good sources of omega-3, as well as ground flaxseed, walnuts and chia seeds.
Broccoli, cabbage and dark leafy greens may also help improve memory, Antony believes, while berries, especially dark ones such as blackberries, blueberries and cherries, are a rich source of anthocyanins and other flavonoids that may boost memory function.
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