What can you do to stave off cognitive decline? Neuroscientist Christian Jarrett explains the six habits that can keep your grey matter fit.
If you've ever had the feeling that you aren't as sharp as you used to be –perhaps you get frustrated that you can't put a name to an actor or politician who has been in the news, for instance, or maybe you're not as quick at mental arithmetic as you were –it might have given you pause for thought about your brain's fitness and whether it's all downhill from here.
It's true that the brain typically finishes developing in our twenties, after which there is a gradual cognitive slowing with age, so it's good to start thinking about these things early. Later in life, there is also the risk of dementia, caused by diseases such as Alzheimer's; inevitably, countries with ageing populations are now witnessing rising rates of dementia.
Thankfully, however, rates of cognitive slowing and dementia risk are both influenced by what experts call 'modifiable risk factors'. In short, there's reason to be optimistic because there are things you can do – lifestyle habits you can adopt – to maintain your brain sharpness and protect yourself from risk of dementia.
Psychologists and gerontologists refer to a concept known as 'cognitive reserve’ which is essentially your brain's ability to adapt in the face of ageing or illness.
For instance, if a person has high cognitive reserve, then even if they show some of the biological markers of Alzheimer's (such as the clumps of protein that accumulate and harm brain function), it's possible they will still perform well on tests of their mental performance. It's as if they have spare mental capacity that allows them to cope with the damage.
Importantly, there are many activities you can adopt that are considered to build your cognitive reserve, such as reading, playing musical instruments or singing, completing challenging puzzles, learning a second language and travelling. Put simply, there really is truth to the old adage to "use it or lose it".
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You will have seen the computerised brain training games that purport to keep your grey matter razor-sharp. The problem with these games is that their benefits don't generalise – you'll get better at the games, but you won't see your gains spill over into other aspects of your life. The games might even be harmful if playing them to excess diverts you from socialising with friends and family. That's because socialising is the ultimate brain-training activity.
Conversely, social isolation is considered a major risk factor for dementia. As a team of researchers at the University of Groningen put it in their recent comprehensive review of this topic, "people with less social participation, less frequent social contact and more feelings of loneliness have an increased risk to develop dementia”.
So, seek out company and lively conversation when you can – it will give your brain a great work-out and the feelings of belonging will be a boon for your mental health too. If you're not sure where to start, try volunteering or join a debating club.
Your brain depends on oxygen and other nutrients to function well and so it follows that the better your cardiovascular health, the fitter and healthier your brain will be too. At the same time, a sedentary lifestyle and obesity are both associated with speedier cognitive decline and increased risk of dementia.
So, try to build an active lifestyle into your routine. Regular running, cycling, swimming or similar exercise classes will do the trick, but if that's not your thing, you could try simply walking and taking the stairs more often, or staying more active through gardening or regularly completing some other kind of hobby that gets your heart pumping, such as choir singing.
It's also good for your brain if you can sustain a healthy diet. Avoiding too much saturated fat will stop your arteries becoming clogged, and plenty of fruits and green vegetables will provide your body with ample antioxidants that help cleanse the brain of 'free radicals' – a kind of harmful by-product of various biological processes.
To meet these goals, the World Health Organization recommends the so-called 'Mediterranean Diet', which is high in fruit, vegetables, legumes (such as lentils, beans and peas), nuts, cereals and olive oil, while being low in saturated fats and meat. If that's too overwhelming, make a start by aiming to eat one more item of fruit a day and avoiding too many supermarket ready meals.
More surprisingly perhaps, there are also links between personality and brain health. People who score higher in Openness to Experience (one of the so-called Big Five traits that's associated with curiosity, creativity and a willingness to try out new things) tend to be sharper and at lower risk of dementia. As a team at the University of Georgia put it, "Higher Openness was related to better psychomotor speed, cognitive flexibility, and working memory in depressed and non-depressed older adults".
Fortunately there are habits you can adopt to boost your Openness to Experience, such as seeking out more awe (for example by taking walks in stunning surroundings or watching nature documentaries), travelling to exotic and unfamiliar places, and enjoying mind-expanding cultural experiences (such as live theatre).
Hopefully by now, once you've established this range of positive habits around being mentally and physically active, socialising plenty, being open-minded and eating well, you'll be feeling pretty optimistic about your brain's future, especially as you get older. This is actually the final piece of the jigsaw.
A growing amount of research suggests that your attitudes toward ageing can have real consequences for your neural health. If you expect to become increasingly slow and prone to forgetfulness, that could well become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Alternatively, if you realise that your brain health is to some extent in your own hands, and that's it's possible –with the right lifestyle and routines – to remain mentally agile through life, then that is actually likely to benefit your brain.
So, seek out positive older role models if you can, take the advice in this article to heart, and seize the chance to train your brain like a muscle –you may yet unlock your full potential.
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