Brain Power As You Age

I love the idea of living a long life, but it has to be with a good degree of health and fitness and an active brain. Now, unless I have a fairy godmother, that I know nothing about the only way this is going to happen is with a fair amount of effort on my part. I have been amazed at all the incredible folk in their eighties, nineties and even over a hundred like the inspirational Sir Tom, who have appearing recently up on various TV programmes. These are the generations that have survived war-time, recessions, national strikes and quite a few ups and downs, but their strength, resilience and good humour still shows through.

Now we know that our brain’s volume gradually shrinks as you get older. When this occurs, some of the nerve cells in your brain can shrink or lose connections with other nerve cells. Blood flow within your brain also slows as you age. These age-related changes are thought to be behind the differences in cognitive function many people notice as they age. However, myths about ageing can contribute to a failing memory. Middle-aged and older learners do worse on memory tasks when they’re exposed to negative stereotypes about an ageing memory and better when given positive messages about memory preservation into old age. Therefore, if you believe you can improve your brainpower and put this into practice, you have a much better chance of keeping your mind sharp. My seventy-six-year-old mother has just starting learning Spanish on Duolingo and after 3 days was at the top of the leader board, so age is no obstacle to learning a new skill.

A higher level of education is associated with better mental functioning in old age. Experts think that advanced education may help keep memory strong by getting a person into the habit of being and staying mentally active. Challenging your brain with mental exercise is believed to activate processes that help maintain individual brain cells and stimulate communication among them. Work can keep us mentally active and when you retire pursuing a hobby or learning a new skill can help maintain brain power. The belief that exercising our brains through mentally stimulating activities like puzzles, makes a lot of sense, if we want our brain to stay in peak condition, we should always use it. Other activities like; reading, playing chess or bridge, writing, learning a language, art and music not only stimulate the brain but keep life interesting and worthwhile. My neighbour who is in her late nineties plays bridge daily and is as bright and alert as she was decades ago.

My family throughout the lock-down has had a weekly quiz night on Zoom which we all love and hopefully will continue. Jigsaws and board games have been taken out of the loft and families across the country have been playing these together. If we all kept doing this and not spending hours on social media and mindless gaming, we would notice the difference.

Studies of cognitive ageing often ask people in older age to complete tests of their thinking skills and provide details about activities they do. Almost all of those studies find that the people who carry out much more stimulating mental activities have better thinking skills in older age.

There has been a growing market for so-called brain- training products. These are often computer-based games or tasks specifically designed to be mentally stimulating. These products are popular but there is controversy over whether brain- training really does protect thinking skills in later life. A group of leading research experts has argued that evidence that brain training can help combat cognitive decline as we grow older is limited. Their view was that people who play these games get better at them but might not see improvements in their thinking skills more broadly. One of the biggest companies selling these products was fined in 2016, by the US government Federal Trade Commission for making claims that weren’t supported by evidence and that in the Commission’s words;

Preyed on consumers fears about age-related cognitive decline.

Personality I think that although the evidence on the benefits is still incomplete, there are many great reasons for taking up new activities in later life. Doing hobbies and activities that we enjoy are important to maintaining a good quality of life and well-being in older age. I would mention that you don’t necessarily need to spend a lot of money, the internet provides free quizzes etc and you may be able to join classes at a reduced rate or even for free. Mixing with a younger age group is important and staying engaged and interested in the world around you can help to keep your minds sharp. I have been learning three languages online. It’s challenging at times but also rewarding, great fun and free.

There is promising research that indicates that taking the following steps may help preserve your memory and thinking skills as you age: controlling cholesterol and blood pressure, not smoking or drinking excessively, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, getting a good education, stimulating your brain, socializing and staying active in old age.

A new study suggests that in fact, older people who were physically active kept their minds sharper as well as having better health. I thing all these steps are achievable for us all. Now I am middle-aged, I realise just how important it is to be healthy both physically and mentally. No amount of success or wealth matters if we are not in good health and cannot still do tasks or have the ability to think.

So just by making some simple changes now can affect the quality of life in your later years….