The long, slow yet natural process of ageing doesn’t need to be a passage into dimming forgetfulness. There are many ways to keep the lights upstairs burning brightly.
Once you pass that flashing, neon-lit mental roadside marker that indicates 50 years of existence, life changes. A little bit at first – late nights at the boozer followed by early mornings at the office lose their shine, damn quick – and then by the time you are in your early 60s, your body and mind have started a slow, natural progression.
Forgetfulness is a part of the journey but there are many things you can do to keep hold of your mental and physical vitality.
“Science now shows us that not only are we able to protect our brains from the ageing process, but we can continue to grow new brain cells throughout our entire life,” says Professor James Goodwin, a physiologist at Loughborough University in the untied Kingdom, and author of a new book and mental effects of ageing, Supercharge Your Brain: How To Maintain A Healthy Brain Throughout Your Life.
The truth is that the old-fashioned trope that old age is all about losing your glasses, misplacing your dentures and not being able to remember what you were searching for in the back of the cupboard is being set on its head by an eye-opening array of expert research.
“There has been a dramatic switch in the science over the last couple of decades and we’ve completely lifted the lid on what we know about how to look after our brains,” says Professor Goodwin, who is also a neurologist with a chair at Exeter University Medical School.
The difficult truth is that right around the world cognitive decline is not just a problem but a health epidemic. Worldwide more than 50 million people are experiencing the decline of their cognitive powers as they age. This figure is expected to rise to 83 million by 2030.
While dementia mainly affects older people, it is not a normal part of ageing. And while we still don’t understand the solutions to dementia, there is plenty that we, as individuals, can do to keep our minds healthy and sparkling long into our old age. In this environment, it’s clear that we all need to know more about how to look after our brain health.
Here are five straightforward ways to tweak your lifestyle and support your brain health:
Have more sex!
Yes, that’s right. MORE SEX. Now, that’s going to raise a few eyebrows but having sex is a completely normal part of life at all ages and not something just reserved for randy teenagers.
Frequent sex with a close partner is good for your brain. It can help you create better memory, better verbal skills and fluency, and even help your mathematics.
One scientific study conducted on rats showed that males who had 14-28 days of daily access to a receptive female massively increased the new cells in their brains. More importantly, says Professor Goodwin,: “it worked better on the older rats, where it had a reverse ageing effect.” Let the romance begin….
Lose your love affair with the chair!
One of the best things you can do for your brain health is to keep your physical body moving. Your brain and your body are part of the same complicated organism. Set your alarm a half-hour earlier and go for a brisk 30-minute walk every morning. Not only will it make you feel better, livelier and help you sleep more soundly but it also stimulates the creation of new brain cells.
“During the past few years, researchers have found that exercise rejuvenates the brain,” says Professor Goodwin. “It produces a chemical that stimulates new cells, and 30 minutes per day is all you need to reap the benefits – for five days a week at a moderate intensity.”
The key is to make sure your activity elevates your heart rate enough to get your blood pumping. You should be moving fast enough to speak but not sing. Scientists call it a ‘dose’ effect. “The more you do, the better the effect – but you can ruin the effects of that exercise completely by sitting down for more than eight hours per day. The longer we sit, the faster we age, so make sure you’re getting up every 20 minutes.”
Become a fluttering social butterfly
Human beings are social animals. We need each other to survive. And that’s never truer than when you reach old age. Being lonely can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or slugging back a bottle of single malt whiskey. One 12-year study showed that people who described themselves as lonely suffered a 20 per cent faster decline in brain function compared to the socially connected.
OK, not everyone is gregarious or the life of the party. But you don’t have to be. Any social activity is better than none. Phone your friends. Email them if you prefer. Write a letter (remember those). You could even just say hello to people as you go for your 30 minutes’ walk each morning. Even these insignificant things count as a form of social connection and ease the burden of loneliness.
Learn a new skill
Learning something new is part of the spice of life. Ok, that’s cliché. But it’s also true. This is a skill that has become a need in modern humans. Many millennia ago, man first stepped out on the road to new destinations, seeking food and shelter to survive. He needed to pay attention to the world as he travelled, memorizing where the water was or where the animals grazed so he could come back later. We need the stimulation of the new so our brains can work properly.
Learn a new language. And don’t just read it. Speak it. Here’s an example. I studied French when I was at school but hadn’t used it for three decades. Couldn’t string a simple sentence together. I visited France with my family on holiday and decided I would try to speak the language, brushing up on my vocabulary each night.
Within a few days, and with some awkward moments, almost everything I’d learned at school came back to me. I even went to a fresh produce market and ordered all our vegetables in French. Just a few days later, I was able to sit down with “un café au lait, s’il vous plait” and read the national French newspaper L’Monde front to back and understand it completely. I was astounded.
It doesn’t have to be language. Learn an instrument. Take a course in simple mechanics. Learn to juggle. Anything, in fact, that requires concentration and effort for a reasonable period of time.
Eat sardines and chew gum
By eating well, I mean eat sensibly and healthily. Eating till you are full as a goog (egg) isn’t healthy or sensible. In fact, as you age, your dietary needs change with your body and your metabolism.
Overeating is bad for your brain. At least one study from the US found that eating more than the recommended calories each day from midlife onwards DOUBLES your risk of memory loss later in life.
Try to practice a little oriental wisdom. Hara hachi bu is a Japanese traditional approach to food. It translates as “Eat until you’re 80 per cent full”.
Eat plenty of Omega 3 (anti-inflammatory, essential fatty acids), commonly found in sardines, mackerel, salmon, or many cold-water fish, as well as nuts, avocadoes, leafy greens, and soybeans.
Look after your gut. Eat plenty of fibre. The trillions of bacteria in our guts affects our mood and thinking skills. “Nourish it with whole, fibrous foods,” says Professor Goodwin. “This is why I eat a whole apple, core included, because that’s where all the fibre is. I slice it horizontally and eat the entire fruit.“This also keeps my teeth clean. A 2014 study found gingivitis, an inflammation of the gums, was linked to Alzheimer’s. There’s also conclusive evidence chewing gum improves memory by 35 per cent and reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s.”