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New ways to keep your brain healthy

Monica Porter / 17 May 2017

Follow the latest research on how to keep your brain sharp, from eating less sugar to reading more books.

Read Shakespeare
Researchers at Liverpool University revealed that reading Dickens, Shakespeare and other classics ‘lights up’ the brain under scanners.

Keeping our brains sharp and healthy well into old age is all about our ability to grow new brain cells called neurons, and strengthen the pathways between them.

Recent scientific studies have shown that there are many ways to do this, and consequently to slow down and even reverse the memory loss, distractibility and other cognitive impairments that often come with advancing age. These are some of them.

Get more sleep

Poor sleeping patterns cause neuron degeneration and lead to the loss of brain volume. Sleep is restorative, as that is when the brain removes toxic waste.

Research shows that you can’t prevent this damage by trying to catch up on lost sleep during the weekends, so it's critical to get enough sleep each night.

A Harvard Medical School study has found that the sleeping brain is good at processing complex information and a proper night’s rest increases a person’s chances of finding creative solutions to the challenges of the following day.

10 ways to get a better night’s sleep

Eat less sugar

Brain health is intimately connected to diet, and high consumption of sugar (both fructose and glucose) can disrupt the functioning of the brain.

Findings suggest that brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s are partly caused by the brain’s constant burning of glucose for fuel, which damages cells in the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for memory), causing it to atrophy and shrink. Additionally, when the liver is busy processing sugar, its ability to make cholesterol - one of the brain’s essential building blocks - is hampered.

10 ways to eat less sugar without even noticing

Try our brain-boosting beetroot smoothie

Do aerobic exercise

According to Dr Donald Stuss, a neuropsychologist at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, ‘Exercise can forestall some kinds of mental decline. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise in particular increases capillary development in the brain, meaning more blood supply, more nutrients and - a big requirement for brain health - more oxygen. Brisk walking, cycling, swimming - anything that sustains your heart rate at 65 per cent of its maximum capacity for up 30 minutes - appears to protect your brain.’ How? Aerobic exercise enhances the brain’s ability to grow new neural and blood flow pathways. And the greater its reserve of neural pathways, the better it works.

Exercise to keep your mind sharp

Use computer aids

Clinical trials have shown that computer-based exercises designed to improve brain function can increase memory, information processing, reasoning, attention, and problem-solving skills among older people.

The company Posit Science, founded by Dr Mike Merzenich, offers computer-based training programmes for older people, aimed at increasing their speed and accuracy in processing auditory and visual information.

‘The benefits of using our programmes are substantial,’ says Dr Merzenich. ‘If you are 70 and your brain is operating like a typical 70-year-old, your scores on cognitive tests can improve to levels you’d find in a 59-year-old brain.’

Computer games to keep your mind active

Read more books

Researchers at Liverpool University revealed that reading Dickens, Shakespeare and other classics ‘lights up’ the brain under scanners. However, when participants were given simplified versions of the books, the brain-boosting effects were less, suggesting that reading more complex texts is better for you. Areas of the brain that lit up included both the left hemisphere, concerned with language, and the right, which relates to memory and emotion.

The journal Neurology published a study showing that people who read books and did similarly stimulating mental activities had lower rates of mental decline as they aged.

Learn to juggle

Juggling has been proven to increase the amount of grey matter in the brain. It not only burns calories and tones your body, it also exercises your mind, sharpens your powers of concentration and boosts your brainpower.

As reported by the Society for Neuroscience in Washington DC, an experiment in which both older and younger people were taught to juggle found that, after three months, the area of the brain key to our perception of visual motion had increased in size for both age groups.

Proof that we retain, into old age, the ability to learn and to improve our brain structure. 

Get smart: brain-boosting tips

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.