Forgetting names? Can’t remember where you put your keys? It’s time to reboot your brain, says Alix O’Neil, who reveals the best ways to give your grey matter a workout
There are certain inevitabilities about getting older I’ve come to accept as I settle into my mid-thirties. Pubs are intolerable unless you can nab a seat; bed after midnight favours twentysomething skin only; and any more than a couple of glasses of wine leads to a hangover of apocalyptic proportions.
But the one aspect I’m struggling to get on board with is my rapidly diminishing brainpower. There’s no evidence to suggest I’m losing my cognitive abilities, obviously, it’s just a feeling of being less sharp and mentally agile than I used to be. Since having a baby over a year ago, I frequently lose my train of thought mid-sentence and my inbox is cluttered with reminders such as ‘switch off hall light’ and ‘remember phone’. It’s not just a mum thing. Many of my thirtysomething child-free friends are also concerned about memory loss and general brain fog.
Brain health is a hot topic. In recent years, biohacking – essentially any action that helps your body or mind function better – has gone from an esoteric practice favoured by Silicon Valley execs to a mainstream wellness movement. Ranging from putting butter in your coffee to extreme fasting and inserting microchip implants under the skin, it’s a controversial trend. Yet, increasingly, our grey matter matters. This year sees the publication of a host of new books on the subject, including How (Not) To Train The Brain, 100 Days To A Younger Brain, Your Brain On Food and Brain Coach.
What’s behind this latest obsession? Sheida Rabipour, co-author of How (Not) To Train The Brain, explains: ‘As the ageing population grows, there’s a greater concern with memory loss, as well as more awareness of and treatment for mental health issues. There have also been a lot of technological advances that have allowed us to develop tools that track the progression of diseases and cognitive function in healthy people.’
According to recent government statistics, in 2016, 18 per cent of the UK’s population were aged 65 and over. By 2046, this is predicted to rise to almost 25 per cent. A healthy brain is key if we’re to make the most of our longevity and stave off cognitive diseases, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, the leading cause of death among women in England and Wales.*
The good news is, our brains are adaptable, says Sabina Brennan, a research psychologist at Trinity College Dublin’s Institute of Neuroscience and author of 100 Days To A Younger Brain. ‘A lot of people think dementia is a normal part of ageing, which it isn’t. Your brain can change at any age.’
Brennan claims 30 per cent of all cases of Alzheimer’s are attributable to seven risk factors: low levels of physical activity; poor educational attainment; mid-life obesity; type 2 diabetes; smoking; mid-life high blood pressure; and depression. Although our brains begin to atrophy from around age 30, Brennan says it’s possible to slow down the brain’s ageing process. ‘In a way, size matters when it comes to the brain: you can build brain reserves, which is like the hardware, and cognitive reserves, the software. The more brain cells you have the longer you can buffer against that loss. We used to think that there was nothing you could do about age-related atrophy, but recently we’ve discovered you can boost the size of your brain and build new neurons and connections that can help you keep pace with this decline.’
A recent study by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro found that a hormone released when we exercise was so powerful, it was capable of ‘reversing dementia’ and delaying the onset. Evidence also points towards a Mediterranean diet: colourful fresh fruit and veg, oily fish, nuts and proteins. ‘To function properly, your brain and nervous system require an adequate supply of amino acids, found in protein-rich foods. These are the raw materials needed to make neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that carry signals throughout your brain,’ says Brennan.
‘Dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin are key neurotransmitters that play a role in cognitive function, including attention, learning and memory.’ Brennan eats fish five or six times a week, though suggests aiming for at least twice a week. Good choices include sea bass, tinned tuna and salmon − farmed salmon is higher in omega-3s than wild salmon. Antioxidant-rich fruit and veg to plump for include citrus fruits, strawberries, sweet peppers, broccoli, carrots and spinach, while almonds, peanuts and hazelnuts offer the brain plenty of vitamin E, which may help protect neurons from damage.
Give food containing trans fats a wide berth. The brain needs natural fats to function properly, but trans fats can cause cellular damage, adversely affecting memory and brain function. ‘While cholesterol is critical for brain health, your body can produce all of the cholesterol it needs to carry out its essential functions,’ says Brennan. ‘You don’t need to eat food containing it.’ So, it’s goodbye to cakes and hello to kale.
‘What’s good for your heart is good for your brain,’ says Brennan. Face-to-face social interaction is also crucial. But by far the best thing for your brain is sleep. ‘If you’re not getting proper sleep each night, it will impact on your attention, memory function, ability to learn, make decisions and take risks,’ she says.
The benefits of coffee have been widely debated, but Brennan says, ‘There’s a chemical in the brain called adenosine that tells us when we need sleep. When you drink coffee, you think it gives you energy, but it’s just blocking the adenosine’s signal.’ Alcohol is another brain drain. A 2017 study by the University of Oxford and University College London found even moderate amounts can damage areas of the brain linked to memory and cognitive function.
There are plenty of apps to keep our grey cells supple with daily workouts. ‘If you find solving puzzles challenging and engaging, there’s nothing wrong with doing them,’ says Rabipour. ‘But equally, physical activity, learning a language or a musical instrument are protective factors.’ Rabipour and Brennan insist the brain needs to be challenged to benefit from its plasticity. Even small daily tasks that force the brain out of autopilot will make a difference. It’s about trying something new, such as listening to music from an unfamiliar genre, reading a section of a newspaper you’d normally bypass or taking a new route to work.’