Ageing makes most of us think about it seriously at some point of time in our lives. We can’t do much about the years rolling by, but we do try to buy some time in terms of appearance with fancy anti-ageing creams, breakthrough treatments or plastic surgeries. 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 deal.
If researchers are right, you can follow some of the best practices for battling mental decline. New studies are pointing to ways one can slow, and in some cases reverse, the memory loss, distractibility, and other cognitive deficits that often come with age.
Pick up your pace
You know how your doctor is always telling you to get a moderate amount of exercise to stay healthy? Well now there’s evidence that exercise not only helps your body but it also might improve your brain.
“When we exercise we maintain brain health and neuroplasticity throughout our life,” says Farah Dahabi, Clinical Social Worker and Grief Support Specialist, The Lighthouse Centre of Wellbeing. “Exercise promotes executive functions, the set of abilities like response speed and working memory that allows us to select appropriate behaviour and inhibit inappropriate behaviour, and focus despite distractions.”
Researchers believe that anything that sustains your heart rate at 65 per cent of its maximum capacity or greater for up to 30 minutes appears to be neuroprotective — meaning it protects your brain and will decrease your chances of getting other diseases too.
“Exercises have proven to delay mental ailments such as Alzheimer’s and dementia and maintain cognitive function,” explains Dr Salwa Al Suwaidi, Consultant — Geriatrician at Dubai Health Authority (DHA). “We usually ask older people to exercise for 50 minutes per week. These 50 minutes can be divided into 10 minutes each time with different types of exercises such as aerobics, resistance exercise, swimming, and jogging.”
Taking a brief, brisk walk during the day can help significantly, but pushing yourself a little more can be of more worth.
“Taking up complicated sports has greater benefits than repeating simpler ones such as walking,” says Dr Samia Abul, Psychiatrist, Rashid Hospital.
Sharpen your social skills
Researchers have long known that having social connections help protect people against the negative impacts of ageing. Is there really a direct link between social activity levels and the brain?
“Variety and satisfaction in social contacts is more important than the size of a person’s social network,” agrees Dr Abul.
Having good social connections over time may somehow build up overall brain functioning, while joining a group, taking a class, or scheduling regular visits and phone calls with friends and family can all help build these relationships.
“We have excellent examples of patients even in their 80s who come to socialise or take up a hobby,” says Dr Al Suwaidi.
“They make new relationships and we notice that these patients are more attentive and have better cognitive function than those who are isolated.”
On the other hand, we know that social isolation is linked with cognitive decline. If you’re older and lonely, chances are your mental faculties will weaken at a quicker rate. “The absence of supportive social relations is the equivalent to the health effects of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, increases blood pressure, weakens our immune system, and creates a higher risk of developing depression and dementia,” says Dahabi.
Stimulate your brain
There is now sufficient scientific evidence that keeping your mind active is good for brain health. But what’s the best way to do that?
Recent studies have shown that computer-based exercises designed to improve brain function have been effective at increasing memory, information processing, reasoning, attention, and problem-solving skills among older participants.
That may be true, but some researchers are still sceptical as there is a concern about computer-based training programmes: that seniors won’t maintain interest in them long enough to reap the benefits.
“Engaging in fun, novel activities can be as stimulating. Instead of doing the regular repetitive exercises, take up something challenging such as learning another language,” says Dr Abul.
Overcoming the challenge
So, will all this research actually compel people to do what it takes to keep their brains fit?
Dahabi says in order to optimise brain performance we must have an integrated approach that includes healthy sleep, adequate physical exercise, time to connect with others, time to play or try new things, and time to disconnect. “Try new things. When we engage in new behaviours or activities we build new neural pathways that increase our brain’s plasticity.”
Dr Abul adds, “Learning new information and skills throughout your entire life helps to keep your brain strong. Maintaining a strong sense of purpose in life is also an important contributor to good healthy brain.”