5 Top Tips on How to keep your Brain Young
By Professor James Goodwin
I’m often asked about how we can remain independent as the years go by. I was privileged to have been brought up by the war time generation. They owed no one anything but many, even today, owe them an outstanding amount. They kept these islands free against one of the worst tyrannies in human history but asked for little in return. Most were from humble backgrounds, modest, self-sacrificing and resilient beyond belief. And yet they had complete moral certainty and an uncompromising belief about our place in the world. If it’s one virtue they embody, it’s independence.
I’m very privileged in this respect. My scientific studies have given me a wealth of understanding about the natural world and in particular about ageing and health. For many years I was Chief Scientist at Age UK and a professor in a number of universities, including Exeter University Medical School. This fortunate background gave me an appreciation of the everyday challenges of staying independent and how the science can help us. It Science also taught me to be respectful of people, not to get righteous and definitely not to preach at people about their health. So, what follows are a few nuggets of knowledge to help us along the pathway of maintaining our health and particularly our brain health which is the key to staying independent. Here are my top five bits of advice.
Be positive and don’t believe the myth of ‘ageing = decline’
It’s an unfortunate truth that many people believe that our journey through our life will inevitably be one of decline, especially of our mental faculties.
Now here's some really great news. Recent research shows that our brains rejuvenate themselves through every decade of our lives and that only 25% of the change in our thinking skills is related to our DNA. So, wow! We have more or less 75% control over our brain health by the kind of life that we choose to live. And the research also shows that it’s never too late to slow down our ageing – whether we are 50, 60, 70 and older, there’s always something to do we can do.
Just being positive about our passing years has been shown to extend people’s lives and to keep us mentally sharp.
There’s no single thing, no silver bullet that on it’s own will preserve our mental capacity. But if there were, it would be maintaining an active life. By this I mean some exercise on the one hand and on the other, avoiding a sedentary lifestyle. For those over 65, the NHS recommends 150 minutes of what we call ‘aerobic’ exercise every week – brisk walking, fitness classes, swimming, riding a bike, tennis, dancing or even pushing a lawn mower. You’ll know if it’s enough if your activity quickens your heart rate, increases your breathing and makes you feel warmer. But we also know that exercise alone isn’t enough. It isn’t an antidote to sitting down all day – which I have to say is a big enemy of brain health. We have to have an active lifestyle too – getting up and about, shopping, visiting neighbours, gardening or having hobbies and pastimes that get us out of our chairs. If you find yourself restricted to a wheelchair, then exercise daily while sitting down. Anything to get your circulation going. These types of activities will help to grow those new brain cells and keep them working.
Getting a good night’s sleep can become more difficult as we age. The truth of it is, our brains still need 7-8 hours of sleep per every 24 hours but our sleep patterns change as we get older. We take longer to go to sleep, we wake up more easily and as a result we may wake feeling we haven’t slept well enough. Notice it’s not 7-8 hours per night. You don’t have to get your sleep all in one go. It’s ok to nap but not for longer than about 40 minutes. If we do, we reduce the sleep signal too much and we won’t feel sleepy at bedtime which ruins getting to sleep. My top tips for sleeping well are:
● go outside in the mornings and get daylight, real daylight directly into our eyes
● eat at the same times during the day and don’t eat less than 3 hours before going to bed
● regularise bedtime and waking time in the morning
● don’t drink coffee after lunchtime and
● keep blue light out of your eyes last thing at night
● If you want to sleep don’t watch late night TV, or look at any screen, including mobile phones before bed.
Sleeplessness is the assassin of brain health. Chronic lack of sleep inflames the brain and ages our brains prematurely.
Eat well for your brain
This may sound like just common sense but did you know that it’s not just what we eat that matters – its how and when as well. Eating and snacking constantly at all hours of the day and night is a bad, bad idea for our brains. And did you know that our modern diets are woefully narrow, restricting the vast array of nutrients that our brain should be getting? As an example, in Covent Garden in the 1850s, there were over 300 types of apples on sale. By contrast, 75% of most food on sale today comes from only 5 animals and 12 plants. It’s no wonder so many people resort to eating pills and supplements, most of which are unnecessary. So, the big message is – diversify your diet. Eat whole high fibre foods and as many different kinds of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and plants as you can. Try to restrict the amount of fish and meat that you eat but do not remove them altogether. Our huge and highly complex brain evolved by our ancestors eating cooked meat and fish. We need these brain healthy foods. Did you also know that the bugs in our bowel are essential to our brain health and that our modern diet starves them?!! So, avoid processed foods, fast food, fried anything and ‘take-away’ meals. Instead consume a wide range of home cooked, natural foods. Finally, there are what I call the Big Five nutrients that are missing from much of our food but are vital to our brains. We should all try to consume natural sources of Vitamins B12 and D, Zinc, Magnesium and Omega 3 fatty acids.
A rich social life
Humans would not be around today if we had not evolved in social groups. Our brains have evolved by surviving on social interaction and the brain thrives on it. We need the company of others. That is why the social isolation imposed by lockdowns has been so dreadfully damaging. Science has shown that loneliness is as bad for your health as 15 cigarettes per day or a bottle of gin a day. Moreover, loneliness will cause your brain to decline by 20% more than if you were not lonely. Our risk of dementia is greatly increased by a poor social life. So, my final advice is to keep your social life as busy as you can. Have a rich social life and by any means avoid feeling lonely – write letters, email, telephone or talk directly to family and friends and neighbours.
These are just some of the ways in which we can improve our brain health and maintain our independence. Small changes everyday are what counts. And over the years, the gains will be well worth the effort we take.
Professor James Goodwin is the Director of Science and Research Impact at the Brain Health Network (www.brain.health) and author of Supercharge Your Brain, published by Penguin Books.
'Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive'
"Accentuate the Positive"
By Bette Midler & Bing Crosby"