Your brain and thinking skills change as you get older, but it’s never too late to protect them, as Michelle Higgs explains
The brain is an incredible, hardworking organ in your body. It’s responsible for unconscious functions such as digestion, breathing and heartbeat; for conscious functions such as movement, balance and speech; and for behaviour, emotions, senses and thinking.
Thinking skills are hugely important to us as human beings. They include memory and learning; reasoning, decision-making and problem-solving; language, vocabulary and understanding speech; planning and organising; and recognising faces, sounds and smells.
Normal cognitive ageing begins very gradually in our twenties and continues through to later life. During this natural process, there is only a small decline in thinking skills. Knowledge and vocabulary is unaffected, but it can take longer to process information, and short-term memory may not be as reliable. Some people experience more than the normal cognitive ageing with more significant changes in thinking skills that can lead to dementia.
But it’s a myth that a decline in how you think is inevitable as you get older. It’s important to realise that you have some control over what happens to your brain over time because 75% of normal cognitive ageing is down to your lifestyle. You can protect your thinking skills by making certain changes in your life and by exercising your brain.
Get plenty of sleep
Having between 7 and 8 hours of uninterrupted quality sleep regularly is vital for your overall health, including your brain. This will help you to maintain cognitive ability in later life. You may not realise how a lack of sleep affects the brain. New mothers and menopausal women, who are both deprived of sleep, often suffer from ‘brain fog’. In the same way, if you are regularly tired, you may find it difficult to focus on tasks, follow instructions or to concentrate generally.
If you’re struggling to get a good night’s sleep, try getting into a regular bedtime routine, perhaps by reading a book, taking a bath or having a hot drink. For optimum sleep, your bedroom should be clutter-free, and not too hot or too cold. The area should be restful so make sure all devices are turned off. Use a blackout blind with thick lined curtains to avoid being woken by early morning light or illumination from the street. If this doesn’t improve your sleep, try taking short naps during the day if it’s practical to do so and you find it helps.
The average adult brain contains around 100 billion brain cells, and each one is connected to around 1,000 others (Age UK)
Being physically active and purposefully moving more will work wonders for your brain health. This is because aerobic exercise that gets your heart pumping and your circulation going will ensure an efficient blood flow to the brain with more nutrients and oxygen. Adults should aim to do at least 150 minutes of physical activity every week, and be active every day. In addition, on at least two days a week, you should do some resistance-type exercises to keep your muscles, bones and joints strong.
It’s important to find a physical activity that you really enjoy and can build into your daily or weekly routine. From cycling, running, swimming and walking, through to racquet sports, dance, Zumba and jui-jitsu, there’s something to appeal to everyone. If you haven’t exercised for a long time, take it slowly and build up your fitness levels. If you’re obese, check with your GP or local pharmacy before you start exercising.
It’s now known that there’s a definite link between what you eat and your brain processes, including thinking skills. A healthy, balanced diet is key: it should be low in saturated fats and high in fruit and vegetables, including your ‘5 a day’. Some very specific nutrients have been linked with improved cognitive function in later life. These are omega-3 fatty acids, flavonoids, vitamins B, D and E, and choline.
You can get these nutrients naturally through your diet, if you add some of these specific foods to your meals: oily fish, such as salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel; nuts and seeds, such as flaxseed and walnuts; citrus fruits and berries; eggs, milk and dairy products; oats; mushrooms; leafy green vegetables; and olive oil. You could also start the day with a fortified breakfast cereal.
Research shows that smoking speeds up the ageing of the brain, so if you currently smoke, make it your top priority to quit. If you succeed, over time, there can be a partial reversal of damage to the brain. This means there’s no time like the present! Obviously, quitting will have huge benefits for your whole wellbeing too.
If you’ve decided you want to stop smoking, have a chat to the team at your friendly local pharmacy. They can offer invaluable advice and support, and help you to quit for good through nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). They can also advise which NRT products are best for you as an individual, depending on your overall health. The service is completely free and with the help of the pharmacy team, you’re three times as likely to quit smoking for good.
The changes in our thinking skills as we age are down to our genes (25%) and our lifestyles (75%) (Age UK)
Give your brain a workout
In addition to lifestyle changes, try to keep your brain active and challenged on a daily basis. Exercise your mind in different ways and your memory will improve as a result. However, the evidence for ‘brain training’ activities in improving cognitive function is currently inconclusive. It’s fine to do a daily brain game, especially if you enjoy it, but that shouldn’t be all you do to protect your thinking skills.
The best activities that will challenge your brain involve both physical exercise and mental stimulation. It’s even better if it involves some form of social interaction because that improves your mental wellbeing too.
How about a weekly dance class where you need balance and coordination, and learn specific routines? Or you could join a choir where you have to learn the words to songs or pieces, and sometimes need to read music.
10 ACTIVITIES TO STAY MENTALLY SHARP
1 Use a traditional map instead of GPS when you drive or walk somewhere new.
2 Read more novels, especially long ones, that require you to keep track of the plot and characters.
3 When calculating something, use mental maths or paper and pencil instead of a calculator.
4 Try knitting or crochet, following a pattern to complete a particular item.
5 Learn a new language, preferably in a class where you can meet and converse with other people.
6 Complete a daily crossword, Sudoku or logic puzzle.
7 Play chess regularly or card games such as bridge.
8 Get creative by building a model, learning to paint or trying out new recipes.
9 Try a weekly yoga class to improve your balance, coordination and concentration.
10 Have a go at orienteering, which incorporates physical exercise and map-reading. :