Many people are familiar with the idea of going to the gym to keep your body in good shape. But, as yet, there are no local gyms for the mind. The closest we have are adult education institutions, and perhaps certain clubs and day centres. This means that it is largely up to the individual to organize his or her own ‘training programme’ for their most important internal organ – the brain.
Like body, like brain
The brain is very similar to the rest of the body in its responsiveness to training. When you go to the gym and exercise, you are putting demands on your muscles. In response, your body rushes oxygen to the area needing support, and, even after exercise has finished, continues to build up the body parts that have been challenged. Your body, over weeks and months, changes shape to meet the new demands. The brain works in the same way. If you challenge it, it will physically change to meet the demands you place on it. As well as challenge, interest and stimulation are important: the richer and more varied you make your environment, the more alive your brain will be in response.
As with the body, adequate nutrition, exercise and sleep help enormously. A low-calorie diet containing oily fish (i.e. rich in omega-3 fatty acids), along with plenty of vegetables (especially leafy green ones), is likely to slow cognitive decline, and hold back the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Avoiding hydrogenated fats (found in fast food, biscuits and crisps) will prevent your brain’s arteries from clogging up, and a low cholesterol diet prevents the build up of amyloids – the bad substances behind much brain disease. In terms of alcohol, red wine (and only red wine) - in moderation - can benefit the brain.
Those wishing to keep their brain healthy are well-advised to invest in physical exercise. Regular exercise increases blood flow to the brain, enhances mental focus, and promotes the formation of new brain connections. In addition, contrary to a previous belief that the brain does not make new cells in adulthood, it is now known that exercise causes your brain to make brand new memory cells for future use.
Sleep not only restores the brain, but also develops it selectively in response to recent mental challenges. During sleep after activity, your brain chooses, and develops, the areas found to be most in need of enhancement. Good quality sleep at night, and short naps during the day, are both beneficial.
A healthy brain can handle a broad range of sensory inputs, whereas a less healthy brain has diminished ability to process stimuli from the immediate environment. You can work on your sensory memory by giving yourself challenges in processing what you see, touch, smell and hear. Photography and art encourage visual observation. Attentive cooking or wine-tasting will stimulate the olfactory sense (could you identify unlabelled wines or spices?).
In particular, activities requiring fine finger control are helpful – the brain gives more resource to the hands than any other part of the body. Learning to read and play music provides a rich burst of visual, tactile and aural stimulation. In addition, using new instruments and equipment develop additional kinesthetic sense (the instrument becomes a ‘part of you’, and your brain develops new structures to accommodate it). Tai chi enhances the body’s ‘peripersonal space’ in much the same way, developing your ability to visualise and manage your own position.
Your informational memory has two aspects. First, you need working memory – this enables you to hold immediate information in your mind, and make quick calculations and judgements. This type of memory uses the front of your brain, which atrophies through disuse as you age. It can be developed by activities which require you to retain a number of items in your mind while you perform a related task. Games such as chess and bridge develop this type of memory. In day-to-day life, try to rely less on paper and electronic devices, and more on your own brain – for example, maintaining a short list of shopping items in your mind while you plan your journey around the shops.
Secondly, you need long-term memory – recall of what you learned or experienced a while ago. The pathways supporting long-term memory can be developed by encouraging focus and sensory visualization. For instance, you can try to memorize a longer shopping list by creating a lively story involving all the items; or to remember people’s names by associating the words with personal characteristics. These techniques not only help your present ability to remember – they also act as exercises to keep your brain more healthy and active.
Develop a hobby and practise, practise, practise
If you have a hobby which interests you, then use that motivation to push you to hours of practice. The intense focus required for improvement – whatever the activity – leads, even in adulthood, to dramatic changes in the brain’s structure and function. The important thing is to be always stretching your capacities, and finding new ways to develop your skills.
Use action video games
Action video gamers have better visual search and attention skills, short-term memory, and response times. One hour a day is enough to make a noticeable difference. Your visual fine-tuning will improve, as well as your ability to respond to simultaneously occurring events. Surgeons who play video games for more than three hours per week make fewer errors, and work faster, in the operating room. Elderly subjects do better in intelligence tests after only one hour of gaming per week. So, rather than regarding action video games as the preserve of the ‘young’, join the fun… just watch out for the addictive nature of many of them!
Keep educating yourself
In general, people with more education are less likely to be diagnosed with dementia in their lifetime. Education trains more efficient use of available brain networks, and is thought to compensate for the loss of resources associated with dementia. It may not stop dementia taking hold eventually, but it significantly delays the effects of its onset by developing ‘cognitive reserve’ – your brain’s equivalent of a savings account.
A final, more emotional recommendation: stress is known to make the brain less efficient, and to hasten its decline. So avoiding stress, at all ages, makes sense in terms of preserving brain function.
A comfort – an advantage of having an older brain
Finally, psychologists acknowledge one important capacity of the mature brain which is deficient in younger brains. While young brains are better at ‘fluid intelligence’ (solving new and unpredictable problems), older brains have better ‘crystallized intelligence’ (using expertise and judgement to solve predictable problems). Finding a social use for any special expertise you have will maximise your self-esteem, as well as reinforcing your memory.
In summary, make sure you eat well (a Mediterranean diet is a good guide), and keep giving yourself physical and mental challenges, developing new and interesting hobbies, until the day you drop. That’s not rocket science. But it is brain science!
Think Smart, a book by neuroscientist Richard Restak, contains tips for keeping your brain healthy throughout your life. This article is a short summary of the book’s main recommendations for maintaining good brain performance in old age.