Keep your wits: 5 easy ways to boost brain health

The earlier we start working on optimising what is essentially our body’s command centre, the better the outcome as we age.

Ask Professor Kerryn Phelps, author of How to Keep Your Brain Young, why we should be thinking about our brain health and she says the answer is simple: because we don’t until we’re negatively impacted in one way or another.

“Often people begin thinking about brain health only after they become concerned about their own decline in cognition, or because a loved one has developed a brain health issue,” Dr Phelps explains.

According to the Brain Foundation, brains start to age after we turn 40, when cognitive abilities such as processing speed and memory start to decline.

In normal ageing (dementia aside), cognitive abilities decline due to the loss of connective structures called synapses.

The good news is, you can slow the deterioration and keep your brain in shape for many years.

University of Melbourne Healthy Ageing Program director Professor Cassandra Szoeke says their research has found dementia takes 30 years to develop.

“You can’t start early enough,” Prof Szoeke says.

“Think of your body like a car that has to last 100 years.

“You should only use the optimal fuel to get the best out of it.”

Here are five great ways to “exercise’ your brain” and slow the ageing process.

Lock in regular exercise

Prof Szoeke says the biggest single factor in prolonging cognitive and physical health is consistent daily exercise.

Regular exercise spurs the development of new nerve cells and increases the connections between brain cells, providing for an effective way to delay the onset of cognitive decline and dementia.

A study by Columbia University found those who moved more scored better on memory and thinking tests over a 20-year period.

Regular activity such as walking, housework and other exercise keeps your heart healthy and blood pumping to the brain.

Fun ways to keep your mind active

Neuroscience Research Australia senior principal research scientist Professor Kaarin Anstey says keeping our minds active can reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

“It also helps us in our daily lives to keep mentally sharp,” Prof Anstey says.

“We should try to stay mentally active throughout our lives.”

So start stocking up on those super-addictive puzzles; a study from Germany’s Ulm University has found working on jigsaw puzzles helps protect against cognitive ageing. Not sure if that’s really your thing? Try exercising your brain with other types of puzzles such as cryptic crosswords or sudoku or by learning a new skill such as a language or musical instrument, suggests Professor Phelps.

“What you’re looking for when you’re learning something new is novelty, variety and something that continues to keep challenging you so you’re always building new neural pathways and keeping the existing ones in good health.”

Eat smarter and get healthy

Overhauling your lifestyle may not sound very sexy, but then again, neither is premature cognitive decline.

As it stands, there are currently 472,000 people living with dementia in Australia – a figure set to increase to more than one million by 2058, Dementia Australia Advocacy and Research executive director Kaele Stokes says.

“Risk factors for dementia can be modifiable and non-modifiable, and the more we look at transforming the modifiable – following a healthy diet such as the Mediterranean Diet, not smoking or drinking to excess, steering clear of drugs and looking after your heart health – there is the possibility to decrease the risk of dementia by up to 40 per cent.”

A hybrid of the Mediterranean-DASH diet and recommends loading up on leafy green vegetables, mixed berries, nuts, extra virgin olive oil, less meat, more legumes, fish once a week and alcohol in moderation has been associated with reduced odds of cognitive impairment.

Get together with others

Whether you’re into book clubs or catching up for a coffee with friends, you’d do well to keep your social calendar full, advises Professor Phelps.

“Social connectedness is hugely important for your brain health, as we know social isolation is a significant factor in cognitive decline,” she says.

One study by the University of Pittsburgh showed older adults who frequently got together with friends, volunteered or attended classes or clubs had healthier brains than those who kept to themselves.

The power of the nap

Many of the world’s great figures swear by the power of a quick nap and several studies show an afternoon kip can pay dividends for your brain health moving forward.

A Chinese study found regular afternoon napping is linked to better cognitive function. Can’t quite sneak off into the storeroom during a lunch break? Aim to sneak an extra hour to your sleep at night.

According to an experiment conducted by the University of Surrey’s Sleep Research Centre, an extra hour of sleep improved participants’ mental agility in tests.

Written by Dilvin Yasa and Cheryl Critchley.