Once upon a time it was thought that memory loss was a normal function of ageing, and that if you were becoming forgetful, it was a sign that you were just getting old and, well, perhaps a bit dotty!
But recent research into the brain indicates that brain and cognitive decline are not generally automatic or inevitable. Rather, studies show that the brain has neuroplasticity - meaning it has the capacity to generate new neurons and synapses throughout life. This makes it highly adaptable or, in other words, able to respond to changing situations and environments, and even to heal after injury in many cases.
Your brain doesn't reach a certain maximum size or capacity from which it all just goes downhill into decline. There are in fact many quite simple things you can do to keep your brain in good health and protect it against cell loss, in the process reducing the risk of memory loss and brain diseases such as dementia.
What you can do
The mental side:
- Brain exercises - these can go beyond jigsaw puzzles or crosswords, valuable as those are. University of California neuroscientist Dr Michael Merzenich has developed his BrainHQ exercises specifically to improve brain ‘fitness' and strengthen memory and function.
- ‘Use it or lose it' - this is one of Dr Merzenich's mantras! As an example he recommends avoiding GPS devices, instead studying road maps and using your memory to recall where you are going and how you will get there. One way you might do this is to look intently for several minutes at the map and create a strong mental image of the route you intend taking in your mind.
- Learn something new - the brain loves new challenges! Learning completely new and previously unfamiliar tasks and facts or doing a course outside of your usual set of skills can help develop and rewire your brain, improving memory and cognitive function.Challenging your brain is also a form of positive stress in that it creates minute amounts of cortisol and noradrenaline that are enough to stimulate your mind, as opposed to large amounts of stress hormones that can have the opposite effect.New challenges also help to overcome boredom which can leave you feeling drained and apathetic. And while the early stages of a new challenge can feel overwhelming, once you get past that hurdle it can lead to a kind of ‘high' - especially if you achieve something you never thought you would!
- Play more - it's well-known that when children play is it not just fun and frivolous folly but a workout for their developing brains. Often as results-oriented adults we can tend to see play as a waste of time and energy. Yet it may be the case we need to have more play in our lives. It's important to make sure it is fun - which leads us to the next point!
- Laugh lots - laughter helps produce feel-good hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin. You may even have noticed that when you share a joke or laugh with others, it often tends to create a kind of social bond between you, and helps foster positive relationships - which feeds right into our next tip!
- Socialise plenty - interacting with others helps you develop empathy and it also develops the pre-frontal cortex area of the brain. Not only that though - you may have noticed that mixing with other people who do not necessarily share your viewpoints on certain things can be (while somewhat annoying!) good for challenging the way you tend to think and may help you to develop the thinking side of your brain.
- Reduce stress and anxiety - have you ever found that when you are doing an important exam or in a stressful interview your mind goes blank on something normally very familiar to you? This is because stress can have a negative impact on memory.
If you are going to do something you find stressful, learn calming techniques such as EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) or meditation as these are likely to help you perform better than if you are anxious.
- Meditate regularly - meditation can be great for relaxation and improving the brain. Some studies show that after a few weeks of regular meditation, the amygdala or ‘stress-centre' of the brain reduces in size while the pre-frontal cortex thickens. This can lead to a higher level of rational and logical thinking rather than reacting from fear.
Meditation also gives your brain a rest and a break from constant thinking and may open up new pathways in the brain. You may have heard the old adage that we only use 10% of our brains - meditation may provide just the chance to open those unused areas!
- Keep it positive - some schools of thought believe that oft-repeated phrases can lodge in the subconscious and become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy! So cut the negative talk and jokes about ageing and learn to see yourself in a more positive light.
The physical side:
- Exercise regularly - exercise provides all kinds of benefits, from reducing inflammation, controlling weight and improving mood to improving blood sugars and cholesterol - all of which can lead to improvements in brain volume. Aerobic exercise combined with strength training may be particularly beneficial.
- Learn new ways to move - we humans tend to get stuck in ruts doing the same things over and over. Try a different type of exercise, sport or even dance. According to Dr Merzenich, unpredictable movements can help the brain to grow.
- Healthy diet - aim for a nutrient-dense, reduced carbohydrate / sugar diet as this appears to lower the risk of mental decline. Sugar may also interfere with memory function. Keep up the healthy fats such as omega-3 and medium-chain fatty-acids (such as coconut oil) as these have a protective effect on the brain. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits as their antioxidant activity helps reduce inflammation.
- Limit alcohol - alcohol is a bit like stress hormones in that small amounts appear to have a protective effect while larger amounts are harmful. Keep alcoholic drinks to no more than two per day.
- Do not smoke - any amount of smoking is harmful. Get help to quit if you need to.
- Other things you can do - these include getting plenty of good-quality sleep, reading books, travelling to new places, learning from mistakes, and enjoying life!
Finally - relax a bit! Worrying or becoming anxious about your brain is not likely to help, so while it's good to follow these guidelines, avoid making rigid rules out of them which could lead to stress and the opposite effect from what you want.