What better time to set new brain healthy habits than Spring?
Springtime represents longer days, warmer weather (although maybe not today!) and re-growth throughout nature. What better time for us to come out of hibernation and shed our winter coat – both in body and mind. As our body is working hard to constantly regenerate, our brain is wearing out and getting faster at degenerating – we must be reminded that as much good work we put into our bodies, we should also do the same hard flexing on our minds.
Your brain is incredible. It is easy to take this remarkable organ for granted when it is encased within our bony skull, washed by protective fluid, hidden under our flesh. It is the nerve centre of our body taking the seat of intelligence, interpreting senses, initiating movement and muscles and controlling behaviour – some would call it the crown jewel of the human body.
So how do we help protect and look after our crown jewel?
I’m sure if we are honest the balance between our outward and inward well-being and maintenance is not always in check. A shrunken waist is much more obviously enviable than a beautifully polished brain, but we all know our health works in connection to each part of our body and must work together and be protected with care for fullness of health as we look in the mirror of ageing.
The brain will generally stop developing in our twenties, after which there is a gradual cognitive slowing with age. The risk of dementia, caused by diseases such as Alzheimer’s, will generally start to develop in later age, as reflected in the rising rates of dementia and age. But that's not to say that dementia will only occur in the elderly, signs of early dementia have been diagnosed in people as young as 30.
Just as we hope to deposit enough money in the bank now in reserve for older age and retirement – there is a cognitive reserve we can also make now which will help our brain cope with the ageing process and illness as it comes. Cognitive reserve is the brain’s resilience to adapt and create new pathways and connections between cells when old ones are damaged. If a person with a high cognitive reserve starts to show some of the biological markers of Alzheimer’s (ie; clumps of protein that accumulate and harm brain function), it’s possible they can still perform well on tests of their mental performance as their brain has adapted and created new connections which allows them to cope with the damage.
You can build up your reserve through mental exercises, physical movement, social interaction and cognitive stimulated training.
The most commonly suggested activities to help build up cognitive reserve are: reading, completing puzzles and popular online word puzzles like Wordle, playing board games like chess, learning a new language, playing a musical instruments or singing etc. Most importantly do what you enjoy, so you will do it regularly. These can be very individual activities so always remember to maximise reserve by making activities sociable.
A large study of people over 65 in China showed that those who more regularly read books and newspapers, played board games or card games had a lower risk of dementia.
Modifiable risk factors:
Thankfully, rates of cognitive slowing and dementia risk are both influenced by what experts call ‘modifiable risk factors’. These are habits that you can adopt in your lifestyle that will help maintain your brains sharpness and help protect yourself from the risk of dementia.
Socialise: As our brain constantly makes its own connections, so too does it benefit from our social connections which help us feel happier and healthier in general. Socialising is the ultimate brain-training activity. Social isolation is considered a major risk factor for dementia. Seek out company and enjoy the benefits of lively conversation when you can. Joining a bridge, chess, golf or simple walking club, will give your brain a great work-as well as feeling of belonging which will boost your all-important "mental health". If you’re not sure where to start, try volunteering, joining a church group or joining a club. Put your-self out there and reach out to others. Our purpose is always one of communication and connection. Do what you were made to do.
Eating: Eating a balanced diet is essential for a healthy lifestyle. Your brain, like the rest of your body, depends on good nutrients to meet these goals. One such way, recommended by the World Health Organisation , is the so-called ‘Mediterranean Diet’. This diet, as the name suggests, comes from the Med and is particularly 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, start by aiming to eat one more item of fruit a day and avoid ready meals. It’s 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. The purpose is to reach and maintain a healthy weight and a healthy blood pressure. Heavy drinking can affect brain health, as well as being linked with other diseases. The government recommends drinking less than 14 units and having several alcohol-free days each week.
Exercise: We all know that being active helps to prevent many health conditions and it’s key to keeping your brain working properly too. A healthy heart cultivates a healthy mind and vice versa. So it follows that the better your cardiovascular health, the fitter and healthier your brain will be too. Keeping a healthy weight will reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease which are both known risk factors for dementia. A sedentary lifestyle and obesity have long been associated with a speedier decline in your cognitive functions along with an increased risk of dementia. Try to build an active lifestyle into your routine – this doesn’t have to mean training for a marathon, just aim to be active every day and move more. If your routine has never included activities like running, cycling, swimming or similar exercise classes, then start off by simply walking for 15 minutes a day and build from there. Staying active through gardening or regularly completing some other kind of hobby that gets your heart pumping, such as choir singing can also do the job. The purpose is just moving more. Stop smoking if you do – this could be one of the greatest ways you could protect your brain.
About a third of adults in the UK have high blood pressure and don’t even realise it. Controlling blood pressure especially in mid-life could go a long way to helping protect the brain from damage. If you’re worried about your blood pressure or haven’t checked it in a while, do so at your doctor’s surgery.
Stay curious: The links between personality and brain health, surprisingly , are very close. 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 a lower risk of dementia. As a team at the University of Georgia put it, "higher openness was related to better psychomotor speed, cognitive flexibility working memory and less prone to depression". Closer to home, to boost your openness, spend more time walking or visiting unfamiliar area where you live or as previously mentioned, try a new activities/club. Travelling to new countries covers many of the activities that are great for you mentally and physically.
The power of positive thinking, your attitudes toward ageing can have real consequences for your neural health. If you expect to become slow and prone to forgetfulness, that could well become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ultimately your brains health, to some extent is in your own hands – remember it is precious (like the crown jewel) protect it as such. With the right lifestyle choices and routines it's possible to remain mentally and physically agile by making some wise and forward thinking choices.
“Forewarned is forearmed.”
I have always enjoyed spending time on any mental game, whether it's the crossword, sudoku or codeword (and sometimes Wordle). The frustration of the challenge is that I often leave them half complete, ready for another day. I'm not sure if it's improved my mental fitness at all, but I enjoy the challenge, just the same.
It's easy not to find time in this busy World not to spend 5 to 10 mins on mind games. For the past year I have been doing one module of French on Duolingo and Wordle. I have seen improvements in both and have been enjoying spending 15 mins, whilst eating my breakfast, submersed and warming up my brain for the day ahead.