In a world obsessed with maintaining a youthful appearance, wouldn’t it make sense to ensure our brains stayed young too? This is one area where you wouldn’t want to see a reduction in those lovely brainy wrinkles, the sulci and gyri that enable our neocortex to fit so beautifully into our skull.
Recent research into the so-called “super-agers” has revealed how they maintain their ability to remember by retaining thicker cortical thickness in the anterior mid cingulate cortex and anterior and rostral medial pre-frontal cortex required for memory performance, and preserved hippocampal volume the area associated with learning and memory. There are two main brain networks involved, the default mode (memory encoding and retrieval) and the salience network that are employed when we pay attention, motivation and executive function. What is interesting about this is what we can learn from the super agers to help ourselves. Is there hope for the rest of us? Absolutely.
Stretch that mental muscle
Drive that neuroplasticity by learning something new, something that gives you pleasure (because you’re going to continue doing it aren’t you!) and isn’t too easy. Remember this is about using your neurobiology to increase your cognitive reserve so making your brain works hard.
The part of the brain used when we realise that something does require that extra push is the mid-cingulate cortex, the area recognised as being relevant to helping us to maintain memory as we age.
What should you learn? How about a new language? Being bilingual or multilingual has been shown to benefit the ageing brain. While the understanding of how this neuroprotective effect is achieved remains to be discovered, being bilingual is associated with increased cognitive flexibility and contributes to our cognitive reserve. Other activities to take up include learning to play a musical instrument or why not try dancing lessons – great cross training for the brain.
Stay on the move
Physical inactivity is bad for the brain and while exercise may pose some problems for ageing bodies, engaging in as much physical activity as possible helps to maintain executive function – planning, organising and decision making and memory. Current recommendation are for older adults to engage in 30 mins of moderate intensity (enough to get your heart rate up and break a bit of a sweat) exercise x five times a week plus some weight training, resistance and balance work. Some is better than none, all physical activity counts and walking has been shown to help reduce brain shrinkage. One study has revealed that walking six miles a week maintains brain volume and reduces a person’s relative risk of cognitive decline.
In addition, exercise stimulates the release of our feel-good hormones, that elevate mood and motivate us to ‘go do’ as well as neurotrophins, such as BDNF that assist in keeping our neurons healthy and stimulating the process of neurogenesis, the production, survival and maturation of new neurons in the hippocampus and olfactory bulbs.
Sleep on it
There’s a common belief that we need less sleep as we age. But that’s not true we still need roughly the same amount. What does change is our ability to stay asleep for 7-8 hours and the quality of sleep obtained during the night. One way to overcome this is to take a nap. A short 20-minute nap is ideal but sleeping longer; perhaps to get through an entire sleep cycle, which takes roughly 90 minutes, is fine too. Best not to nap too late in the day, which might interfere with getting to sleep at your regular time, early in the afternoon is ideal.
Other medical ailments and pain naturally can interfere with sleep. Sleep apnoea and other sleep disorders have been linked to an increase in cognitive decline. Talking to your doctor if you’re having problems sleeping is a good place to start and undergoing a sleep study if indicated, to discover what the underlying problem may be, so it can be addressed properly.
Sleep is needed to help consolidate long-term memory, strengthen synaptic connections and to allow us to forget what is no longer required (this makes more room available for new synaptic connections and pathways).
The first thing to go when we are sleep deprived is our ability to realise we are tired. Mental fatigue leads to loss of attention, reduced memory, increased emotional inability and increased forgetfulness and so is best avoided.
Easy to say, harder to achieve, but reducing the impact of stress will help maintain better brain health and cognition. People living in the so-called blue zones such as the Island of Ikaria who enjoy longevity associated with good health. Prolonged high levels of stress compromise immune function putting us at greater risk of illness and is associated with accelerated ageing.
Telomeres are the shoelace caps found on the end of every chromosome in our body. Every time a cell divides, the length of the telomere is shortened ultimately disappearing and contributing to the death of that cell. An enzyme telomerase helps to reduce this shortening. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to influence telomerase activity and hence keep immune cells in tact for longer. Studies have also shown that regular mediation practice by novice meditators led to an increase in the cortical density of the gray matter in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus of subjects.
Chronic stress is also associated with high levels of the hormone cortisol which is excess becomes neurotoxic, reduces hippocampal volume and impairs telomerase activation.
Tips to help reduce stress include regular exercise, practicing relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises or meditation or gentle exercise program such as tai chi and yoga can help. Staying in touch with friends and family is also important.
Our brain is only as good as the use we give it, so don’t let it get rusty! While our natural level of plasticity declines with age along with our speed of processing, staying engaged with the world around us, maintaining that child like curiosity to explore and discover sets us on a path to continuing joy and wonder.
There are many instances of seniors undertaking degrees, learning to fly, parachute jump or head off to travel the world. It’s time to get out of your comfort zone, strap yourself in, and head off for new adventures to experience the new and the unexpected. This helps build resilience, mental flexibility and optimism, which also helps to reduce stress as confidence and capability soar.
The best prescription to better ageing and staying cognitively intact, is about living life to the full and finding meaning in everything we do.
Dr Jenny Brockis is the Brain Fitness Doctor. She specialises in brain health and mental performance and is the author of Future Brain: The 12 Keys To Create Your High Performance brain (Wiley) – visit www.drjennybrockis.com