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How can I keep my brain sharp?

How can I keep my brain sharp?
Hi. Sabina Brennan here again. How can I keep my brain sharp when my body gets old? Keeping your brain sharp can be hard because the ageing process shrinks and damages our brains and nerve connections. This can mean you may be slower than you used to be or have occasional moments of forgetfulness. But, for many, life and old age can be much more serious. Up to 50% of over 80s develop dementia, a disease of the brain. Dementia causes loss of memory and mood changes. People can struggle to speak and understand others, and the condition is progressive. It gets worse and worse. By 2050, nearly 20 million Europeans will have it. How can you avoid this happening to you?
Well, almost 3/4 of people with dementia have Alzheimer’s disease. Inside their brains, scientists have noticed a buildup of sticky toxic proteins called beta amyloid plaques. These plaques disrupt the connections between brain cells. Eventually, they cause cells to die altogether, which is thought to prompt their owner’s confusion. But as they studied more brains, scientists became puzzled. Some people with this type of brain damage had no symptoms of dementia. In fact, this was a breakthrough discovery. It’s now thought that those without symptoms have more brain cells to begin with, do more with fewer cells, or use different parts of their brains to do the work of the damaged bits. This phenomenon has become known as cognitive reserve.
So how do you get some? In 1984, researchers decided to study group of 801 elderly nuns, priests, and monks, following them for seven years. The study showed that those that spend more time reading newspapers, magazines, or books were as much as 33% less likely to have Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists are still investigating the strange phenomenon, but they do think that adding just a little bit more mental activity to your day, like trying a new recipe, a new hobby, or just making time to socialise puts your brain cells into training, building up that all important dementia-fighting cognitive reserve. To find out how you can build your cognitive reserve, go to

People with better cardiovascular health, who have been more physically and mentally active, who have adopted healthy eating habits, who don’t smoke, and who drink alcohol in moderation are less likely, on average, to develop dementia.

So, how can you keep your brain sharp as you age?

1. Get physically active Your brain needs a good supply of oxygen and nutrients to function well.

  • Why not try walking to work or consider getting off your bus or train one stop early?

2. Stay socially engaged Keeping socially active can play an important role in keeping your brain sharp, and people who are socially active are less likely to develop cognitive impairment. Just 10 minutes of social interaction can increase your brain performance.

  • Simple social interaction may deliver greater benefits for your brain than solving crossword puzzles. So why not consider calling a friend or a relative for a chat?

3. Challenge your brain Life-long learning and education are good for brain health and lower your risk of developing dementia. Learning actually generates new brain cells, enriching brain networks and opening new routes that your brain can use to bypass damage. Challenging yourself, doing new things and learning are vital for brain health. You can challenge your brain in lots of ways; it doesn’t have to be all crossword puzzles and Sudoku.

  • Why not memorise the words of a song, learn how to use a new piece of software or app, start a book from a genre you have never read before, or become a tourist in your own city?

4. Attitude: Manage stress and present-mindedness Chronic stress has structural and functional effects on the hippocampus – the sea-horse part of the brain vital for making memories. People who are relaxed and outgoing have a lower risk of developing dementia.

  • Learning to manage the stress that you experience can have a positive effect on your brain health. Paying attention to the present moment reduces stress and has the added bonus of improving memory.

5. Adapt your lifestyle to protect your brain While age is the biggest risk factor for dementia, research is showing that there are life choices that you can make to positively influence your brain health.

  • For example, Type 2 diabetes together with poor sugar control increases your risk of developing dementia. Why not consider giving your brain a treat by having a sugar-free day today?

Sabina Brennan is a Research Assistant Professor in Psychology at Trinity College Dublin.

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