Published on: November 27, 2016
by Boudicca Fox-Leonard for The Telegraph:
Fancy anti-ageing face creams are all very well, but how many of us stop to think about the importance of keeping our brains young? With the average lifespan tipped to rise to 100, we’re living longer lives and asking more of our bodies than ever. But losing our memories doesn’t have to be part of the pact.
A study at the Massachusetts General Hospital found that a small number of “super agers” in their 60s and 70s could perform memory tests as well as people in their 20s. Fortunately, being a super ager isn’t simply luck of the draw. Scientists have discovered that far from being genetic, there are lots of environmental factors affecting brain health and ageing.
The Disconnected Mind, a study by Prof Ian Deary of the University of Edinburgh, tested more than 600,000 factors in a group of 79-year-olds from the age of 11. It found that a quarter of brain-ageing is down to genes while three-quarters is dependent on lifestyle choices.
From our mid-fifties onwards, we lose one per cent of muscle mass each year – and it’s similar in the brain. So while we might hit the gym to keep our bodies in shape, how many of us try to keep our brains sharp?
It’s not just memory you can boost; all aspects of brain function can be improved with care. Ali Trelle, a researcher at the University of Cambridge Memory Lab, says: “Attention, memory, navigation; there are different things that we do every day that you might think are different but rely on common brain areas. Something that’s good for attention, is likely to be good for memory and brain health as a whole.”
It’s never too late to look after your brain. Prof James Goodwin, chief scientist at Age UK, says: “If you think ‘I’m not getting things as quickly as I used to, I’m not thinking as sharply’, you can improve that. You can put your foot on the brake.
“Many of the modifiable risk factors you can influence to maintain your brain function or to slow the rate of decline are well known. A big one is stopping smoking.”
Here are some of the other positive things we can do.
1. Break the routine
If your idea of looking after your brain is doing the crossword every day, think again. Ali Trelle says that, while brain-training games do no harm, their youth-preserving qualities are a red herring. “People have this idea that doing crosswords and sudoku is going to be the answer to keeping their brain young and memory ability stable over their lifespan but those things aren’t the key. Those things can get quite repetitive and your brain gets quite good at it. The brain isn’t going to be as challenged as much as doing something that’s quite novel to you.”
It might be better, Trelle suggests, to do something completely out of your comfort zone – like learning to ballroom dance or life drawing. “You can think of your brain as a muscle and, in the same way that if you do the same exercise every day you’ll stop seeing results, it’s the same with your brain.” So break the routine and set a new challenge.
2. Learn a language
If you’ve spent your whole life dreaming of being bilingual, now is the time to learn. A 2013 study published in the journal Neurology found that individuals who spoke two languages developed dementia an average of four and a half years later than people who only spoke one language. Experts say that the earlier you learn, the better – but it’s never too late to learn a new lingo.
3. Take the stairs
If there’s a magic bullet to slow brain-ageing then exercise is it. Prof Goodwin believes that if we all stuck to the Department of Health recommendation for physical activity and exercise then we would really put the brakes on our brain slowing down.
Exercise has huge benefits to the cardiovascular system, which in turn supports blood supply to the brain, a critical factor in maintaining brain health.
But how many of us even come close to doing 30 minutes of breathless exercise five days a week?
Try taking the stairs, carrying the supermarket shopping or cleaning the house to up your exercise levels; it will boost your memory too. The National Institute on Ageing in the US has discovered that when muscles exercise they produce a protein called cathepsin B, which boosts brain cell growth. Trelle explains: “Exercise stimulates the development of new neurons to be born, particularly in the hippocampus which is an area we know to be critical for memory.”
4. Get some sleep
Like breathing enough oxygen and having enough food and water, sleep is one of the essential ingredients that five million years of evolution has imputed to our sustained health.
So it’s hardly surprising that when it comes to keeping your brain young, getting quality sleep is vital.
“The brain is designed to go through a certain number of different levels of consciousness during the night to restore and recover its daytime processes,” says Goodwin.
It’s only when we reach deep sleep that we consolidate new memories. Unhelpfully, as we age, the quality of our sleep diminishes, contributing to a decline in brain health.
Try to boost your deep sleep by avoiding long naps in the afternoon that make it hard to sleep at night.
Making sure that you get outside during the day to allow sunlight to reach the eyes, thereby activating the body’s circadian rhythm, is also imperative to getting at least six hours of sleep at night.
5. Say some ‘Ohms’
Being stressed out of your mind can be brain-damaging. Scientists call the wear and tear on the body due to chronic stress “allostatic load”. Too much across a lifetime has been seen to contribute to how quickly one’s thinking skills decline.
Meditation and yoga have been shown to be effective stress busters. Trelle says: “We know it has a positive impact but we don’t know why exactly. It could have something to do with reducing stress hormones in the brain that have a toxic effect on our brains.” Knitting, another well known stress buster, also has positive effects on the brain. A 2013 survey of about 3,500 knitters around the world showed a correlation between knitting frequency and cognitive function. The more they knitted, the better function they had.
6. Have sex
If you’re struggling to get a good night’s sleep then there’s more than one way to boost your brain power in the bedroom. A study conducted by the University of Manchester surveyed 1,700 people between the ages of 58 and 98 and discovered that those who were still sexually active also had better brain power.
“In spite of what people under the age of 30 think, sex continues as you get older. And older people of whatever age really rate it very highly in terms of their well being,” says Goodwin.
“All the pleasure centres are in the brain and all the hormonal release from sexual activity is generated in the brain.”
In particular, sex promotes the release of dopamine, a chemical released by nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells.
7. Throw a party
Humans are social animals and it seems that spending time with our fellow man is vital to brain health.
A 2012 Dutch study found that loneliness increased the risk of developing dementia by 65 per cent, with scientists speculating that psycho social stress may cause harmful inflammation to the brain.
“It’s almost unbelievable, but we know that loneliness is worse for your health than 15 cigarettes a day, being an alcoholic and being morbidly obese,” says Goodwin. Social epidemiology, which studies the social determinants in health, is still largely underestimated by the medical profession but thinking on the topic is opening up.
Trelle is unequivocal about the brain-boosting benefits of socialising: “You might think sitting on your computer brain training is a good idea but it’s much more effective to go dancing with your friends. Anything social is likely to have a positive impact on brain health.”
8. Get a job!
Yep, you might want to consider coming out of retirement. It turns out that working is actually good for keeping your brain young. Psychologist Prof Deary’s study, The Disconnected Mind, found that those people who had complex jobs, did better than those who didn’t.
And it wasn’t just computer engineers or astrophysicists, people who had roles that involved complex social interactions showed signs of better brain health that those who didn’t work. Prof Goodwin says: “If you work in the leisure business, sorting out holidays for lots of different, demanding people then that kind of complex activity was as good as someone sitting on a mainframe computer all day,” says Goodwin.
9. Play a musical instrument
Making music can expand your mind. Dr Melissa Maguire of the Yorkshire Brain Research Centre, who has studied the impact of musical training on the brain, says: “We know that if you take up an instrument as a child you can change the anatomy of the brain. You might see that the cerebral cortices might have greater volume.”
Maguire points to the fact that music activates both sides of the brain: “Our musical side on right side, and the more logical left side.” Getting them to work together involves cross communication through the corpus callosum, the relay centre in the middle of the brain, which might enhance networks in the brain.
Luckily, it seems it’s never too late to benefit from playing an instrument. Before and after cognitive tests have shown that people in their 70s and 80s who have engaged in a short musical training course actually improve on memory testing. “We’re not sure why, but it’s probably enhancing the number of synapses,” Maguire explains.
“Music is probably the only activity you do that excites the whole brain.” So it might be time to dig out that dusty violin.
10. Do one thing at a time
Do you ever congratulate yourself for making the kids’ breakfast, while tweeting a picture and listening to the radio?
You might think that multitasking is a sign that you’re one of life’s sharper cookies but think again. Research has shown that doing one thing at a time, rather than all at once, strengthens our ability to learn, understand and apply new information. And multitasking is linked to increased cortisol production, a stress hormone that leaves us feeling tired when we need energy to concentrate.
Indeed a study at the University of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they’d expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night.
So maybe it’s time to slow down.
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