I read an interesting article in New Scientist recently which talked about the best ways to keep your brain in shape. Studies have shown that as we get older, crucial brain regions responsible for memory, attention and perception begin to shrink. This may not come as a huge surprise to us but the consistency between the studies shows that the age at which this shrinkage starts is 45 years.
The article goes on to give 8 science based strategies for keeping your brain fitter for longer. And the good news is, it's never too late to start!
Although not surprised, I was pleased to see that number 3 on the list of strategies is to "Look after your ears".
Below is a list of the best ways to get your brain in shape....
1 'Flex your mental muscle'
If we think of the brain as a muscle, we would understand that like all muscles if you exercise it, it will stay strong. We've all heard the saying "if you don't use it, you lose it". Brain training apps were all the rage a few years ago but these have since been unproven. "There's no magic activity that will do it," says Yaakov Stern, a neuropsychologist at Columbia University in New York. The advice is to do something you enjoy and if it has a social element to it, all the better. There is some evidence to suggest that people who speak more than one language and can play musical instruments require less energy to complete cognitive tasks and may develop dementia later than those who can't. The younger you start the better it would seem.
2 'Get moving'
I think we all know the benefits of exercise but neuroscientists are providing evidence in abundance that regular exercise promotes a healthy brain and mind. Just 45-60 minutes a day of walking, running, swimming or cycling, 3 to 5 times a week increases production of a chemical in our brain often referred to as brain fertiliser. It encourages growth of neurons that help consolidate memories and also boosts mitochondria which are the powerhouses of the cells within our brain thus potentially staving off dementia and Alzheimer's. These are huge gains for not a great deal of effort.
3 'Look after your ears'
As an audiologist, I say this to all my patients. We know that people with untreated hearing loss are at risk of developing cognitive issues. Neuroscientists at the University of Massachusetts have found that hearing loss, even mild, can hinder a persons ability to remember information that they've just heard. It is thought that the amount of concentration required to hear what a person has said uses up so much mental energy that other mental processes are compromised. "I've concentrated so much on hearing what you are saying that I've forgotten what you've said".
The good news is that some hearing losses are temporary, eg ear wax, which can be removed with ease. For other losses, hearing aids or hearing implants can be fitted which can correct the loss very successfully.
So remember, get your ears and hearing checked regularly and keep loud sounds turned down or wear some ear protection.
4 'Chill out'
Inflammation in our body occurs as a result of injury or attack. Some inflammation can be natural, when we cut our hand our body is able to treat the inflammation and fend off infection. Inflammation though can also be unhelpful, particularly if it lasts a long time, such as stress. Inflammation in the brain can trigger processes that can lead to brain cell damage. Meditation and mindfulness practices can help reduce inflammation so it is important to manage your stress levels in order to promote a healthy brain.
5 'Find your purpose'
This may be in the form of your work or a hobby. However it can also be your colleagues at work or if retired, helping to raise grandchildren. The activity itself doesn't actually have to be life changing but it should align with your core values and allow you to be true to yourself...giving purpose to your life. This, it is believed, can stave off mental decline.
6 'Mix and mingle'
Social contact is the core of this. We are social animals and thrive on human contact and being social. And it turns out that socialising with others can help preserve cognitive health. Just like learning a new language or learning to play a musical instrument, flexing that mental muscle will build up your cognitive reserve.
7 'Get your Zs'
Now this is music to my ears! As someone who loves her sleep but never feels she gets enough, the research is in abundance and to deprive yourself is preventing your brain from carrying out important functions the brain can only do when you are asleep. Neuroscientist Maiken Nedergaard at The University of Copenhagen was able to demonstrate that the brain rids itself of biochemical gunk that builds up during the day but can only do this during sleep. They describe the function of sleep to help clean the brain with 7-8 hours being the recommended amount. During this time we have different phases of sleep and each phase will have a different function, such as laying down new memories. Sleep hygiene can help anyone who has difficulty with their sleep routine so be sure to seek help and reap the benefits.
8 'Mind what you eat'
There are fad diets in abundance each one making a claim that might entice us to try them. But what foods should we eat to maintain a healthy brain. Well there is certainly no one food that will achieve this but instead it's your whole diet that counts. We all know what we should and shouldn't eat but is this enough to keep our body and brain healthy? Martha Morris, a nutritionist at Rush University in Chicago devised a diet based on the Mediterranean diet which she called the MIND diet. It included most of the foods on the Mediterranean diet but emphasised particular foods rich in antioxidants and reduced foods associated with inflammation in the brain and body. She studies 923 people living in a retirement home near Chicago and assigned 3 groups: one for the Mediterranean diet, one for the DASH (designed to lower blood pressure) diet and one for the MIND diet. She found those on the MIND diet lowered their risk of developing Alzheimer's by 53% compared to those on the other diets. A larger study at The University of Michigan backed this up and they reported better cognitive performance.
So here it is, 8 ways to keep your brain healthy. We know that our brains have cognitive reserve. This is like having spare mental capacity, like extra padding that allows your brain to sustain more damage before you feel the effects. Our lifestyle, our age, our health all impact on this cognitive reserve so let's do all we can to build our reserve and keep our brain in shape.