Sunday 23 September 2018

Why 'thinking yourself young' is great for your brain

Seven secrets to brain health. Photo: Depositphotos
Seven secrets to brain health. Photo: Depositphotos

Your brain is the most complex entity in the known universe and it is constantly changing its connections depending on what you are doing, learning, thinking and feeling. A car engine runs roughly, slowly and inefficiently if it isn't serviced and tuned and this is true for your brain also. So what can you do to keep your brain engine tuned?

Here are the seven secrets of brain health.

Aerobic Exercise helps to physically grow connections in key parts of your brain responsible for concentration and focus, and also helps improve day-to-day memory. Studies have shown that older adults who engage in 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 3-5 times per week improve performance on tasks measuring attention, processing speed, executive function and memory. Research using fMRI scans found that exercise improved cortical connectivity and activation in the brain; and fitter older adults had greater brain volume than their unfit, sedentary counterparts.

Tip: Try activities with easy continuous motions that keep the heart pumping like a brisk walk, playing tennis, dance, aerobic classes or swimming.

Mental Stimulation - particularly change and novelty - helps keep you sharp and your brain better connected. Research shows that people who engage in higher levels of mentally stimulating activities can reduce their risk of cognitive decline in later years. For example, scientists in Chicago found that over-65 nuns and priests who were most mentally active had roughly a 50pc lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease over a four-and-a-half-year period than those who were least mentally active.

Tip: Challenge and change are key. Challenge your brain by doing things that you would enjoy but which also 'stretch' you; learning a new language, learning to play a musical instrument, or honing your computer skills are examples of this.

Try mentally stimulating activities that are different from to those you are used to, but that you enjoy.

New Learning can trigger new connections between brain cells to develop and stimulate the growth of new cells in key memory domains. Not only this, but researchers have also found that engaging in new and complex learning can result in less atrophy, or wasting away of the hippocampus - an area of the brain important for memory.

Tip: New learning can be as simple as learning the words of a song or as complex as learning a new language. Joining a class can help you to engage in new learning on a regular basis. Anything new that you learn helps to strengthen existing connections and form new connections in your brain, which helps to keep it healthy as you get older.

Good Diet - what is good for your heart is good for your brain, and vice versa. Several studies have shown that adherence to a healthy diet is associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline. In New York, researchers found that people who adhered to a Mediterranean-type diet had between 34pc and 38pc lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease than those with the lowest level of adherence. The right foods can have a protective and nourishing effect on brain cells.

Tip: Eat more fruit and vegetables, like spinach, or cabbage; oily fish like salmon; wholegrain cereals, nuts and pulses, salad, olive oil and poultry. Minimise the amount of animal and saturated fats in your diet - so less high-fat dairy products, red meat, butter, crisps and cakes. For more tips, see page 8.

Stress reduction. Moderate levels of stress can be stimulating but living a very stressful life can have a negative effect on memory and attention. For example, veterans of the Vietnam War who had endured long periods of highly stressful battle conditions tended to have poorer memories than veterans who encountered less stress. Stress is part of life so you will not eliminate it, but even learning to control it somewhat is beneficial.

Tip: Find a method of de-stressing which suits you and do it. Examples include relaxation training, mindfulness, yoga, or exercise. Just feeling a little more in control will help relieve the stress. For more tips, see page 7.

Social Engagement. Social interactions with friends, relatives, societies, choirs, volunteer groups or community programmes, are immensely beneficial to your brain. Evidence shows that people who maintain high levels of social engagement can maintain their mental sharpness for a lot longer. A study in Sweden followed 1,203 healthy older adults over three years and found that people who reported having little or no close social ties had a 60pc increased risk of dementia. This was compared to those who reported having close social ties, and who were living with someone.

Tip: Break out a little bit and widen your circle of friends and acquaintances. Attend social groups, visit or call family and friends regularly, or try some community or voluntary work.

Thinking and Behaving Young. Since the 1950s, life expectancy has increased by 8-10 years. If you think of yourself as old at 60, which is not really justified anymore, then you will behave as though you are old and you will do fewer of the 'seven secrets' that can have such positive effects.

Tip: Don't think yourself old. Hold yourself erect and don't stoop unnecessarily. Behave younger than you are and you will feel younger. The way you act chemically changes your brain and affects brain function.

Sunday Independent

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