Keeping your brain healthy: What the scientists say
Article date: 20 January 2014
There are many rumours and old wives tales that circulate about weird and wonderful ways we can keep healthy long into our later years. But what does science tell us about ways to keep the mind young and active as we grow older?
Take up new hobbies and activities
Numerous bodies of research have shown that investing time and energy in new hobbies and activities is one of the best ways to keep the brain ticking over - and particularly to stave off the degenerative condition Alzheimer's disease.
For example, a study from Brigham and Women's Hospital published in March 2013 presented evidence suggesting "prolonged and intensive stimulation by an enriched environment, especially regular exposure to new activities, may have beneficial effects in delaying one of the key negative factors in Alzheimer's disease".
Further studies have found that not only could learning new skills help to ward off Alzheimer's, but doing so may also enhance memory and help individuals to keep their mind sharp as they grow older.
An investigation led by Denise Park from the University of Texas at Dallas and published in Psychological Science suggested the best way to do this is to learn a demanding and mentally challenging new skill, such as photography or quilting.
"This is speculation, but what if challenging mental activity slows the rate at which the brain ages?" questioned the psychological scientist and lead researcher. "Every year that you save could be an added year of high-quality life and independence."
Get enough exercise
Scientists have also found that doing exercise presents physical, mental and psychological benefits. An article entitled Exercise, Brain and Cognition Across the Lifespan, published online in the Journal of Applied Physiology, considered 111 separate studies on the subject and concluded both aerobic exercise and strength training can play a vital role in preserving cognitive function.
Similarly, research published in Cell Metabolism in October 2013 suggested a molecule called irisin that is produced during endurance exercise could boost brain health as it may have neuroprotective properties. However, studies into this are still ongoing.
Look after yourself
It goes without saying that looking after one aspect of health often impacts on another. Similarly, many may not be surprised to learn that safeguarding cardiovascular health can impact positively on cerebral health too.
The authors of a collaborative report published online in Alzheimer's & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer's Association explained: "We found that well-known risk factors for heart disease also are risk factors for cognitive decline, and that physical activity may reduce risk for cognitive decline and dementia in older adults."
Therefore, adopting a lifestyle that favours cardiovascular health - such as enjoying a healthy, balanced diet - could be a sensible move.
Another way for people to safeguard their mental health is to ensure they get a good night's sleep. Scientists from Uppsala University in Sweden, who carried out a study into the effect of sleep deprivation on the brain, concluded: "We observed that a night of total sleep loss was followed by increased blood concentrations of NSE and S-100B." Typically, the concentration of these molecules in the blood rises during incidences of brain damage, suggesting a lack of sleep could be linked to neurodegeneration in the brain.