Less than 20 years ago, people thought that running or going regularly to the gym was for fitness freaks.
But step outside your front door today and you can barely move for joggers and cyclists, while it’s entirely normal to be a member of a gym.
In short, most people understand that their physical wellbeing is largely down to themselves, and that it can be vastly improved if only they choose to do so.
But what most don’t realise is that exactly the same is true of their brain fitness, too. Just as our bodies age, so do our brains — with consequences that range from the irritating, such as forgetting why we came into a room, to the terrifying, such as dementia.
However, just as with our physical health, there are a range of options available to us to improve our brain health.
In fact, the single most important discovery neuroscientists have made since I first became a brain surgeon 15 years ago is that your brain’s health is largely within your own control.
The brain has a remarkable ability to heal itself. We already know, for example, that every brain can make a comeback following a devastating illness or injury.
Neurosurgeons like myself witness the living proof in patients who’ve experienced strokes, injuries or brain cancer yet who manage to make incredible recoveries.
Neuro gym: The pecking order
When you’re trying to remember things, use the lesson of the pecking pigeons (see main article) and intentionally practise area-restricted searches.
Diligently scour your brain, first for categories and then for items in each category.
This easy exercise takes less than five minutes — all you need is a piece of paper and a pencil.
Set a timer for two minutes then write down the names of as many kinds of water-dwelling creatures as you can.
When you have finished, try the exercise again, but this time using the following categories, listing as many as you can in two minutes.
1. Freshwater fish
2. Ocean-dwelling fish
3. Ocean-dwelling mammals
4. Dangerous fish
5. Sea creatures that have shells
You should find that you listed many more different kinds of water-dwelling creatures second time round, using the five categories.
Area-restricted searches work for people, just like it works for bacteria — and pigeons!
They can relearn to walk, talk, regain fine motor skills and improve their brain function, using techniques practised not only in a hospital but also at home. And if my patients can do this, why would anyone doubt that healthy people can’t push their brain-power into a higher gear too?
Because although most of your brain cells are formed in the womb, certain parts of your brain — those areas concerned with memory and learning — continue to create neurons throughout your life.
And all of us can help our brains do this. In an exclusive two-part Daily Mail series starting today, I’ll show you how to take control of your own brain health and practical ways you can boost your memory and ability to solve problems.
Think of it as a boot camp for your brain. Based on solid, cutting-edge science, my advice and exercises will make your mind fitter, healthier and stronger.
So how do you keep your brain young? There are three key activities we must all make sure we continue to do throughout our lives: keep learning; be sociable; and keep active.
Research shows people with degrees tend to stay in better brain health than those who did not go on to further education.
The reason is that education helps you to develop a larger amount of ‘cognitive reserve’ — and those with this greater quantity of brain-power can afford to lose more, due to natural shrinkage with age, before their brain starts showing obvious signs of decline.
That’s why two people whose brains have shrunk equally can appear dramatically different in terms of how quickly their brains seem to age. Those who put their brains to better use can withstand greater loss of brain matter.
But even if you left school at 16, there’s no reason why you can’t continue to study or learn and reap the benefits too.
Anything that requires reading, concentration and memorising is good — from doing multiplication sums in your head to spelling words backwards and learning another language.
Just the effort you make trying to learn something unfamiliar will help to unlock long-unused recesses of your mind.
Neuro gym: Target your weak spots
The most effective method of memorising facts — at least in the short-term — is self-testing.
Many people first read, then re-read — perhaps several times — the material they’re trying to learn.
But it’s much more efficient and effective to read it just once, then repeatedly test yourself on key questions on the material, according to studies by psychologists at Washington University, St Louis.
This is because self-testing helps you to identify your weak spots — which you can then go back and correct.
Try it the next time you have to learn something — and you’ll see what a powerful memory tool it actually is.
It’s also vital to keep in contact with others. The more friends you have, the lower your risk of developing dementia, according to numerous studies.
It’s been estimated that older people with many friendships and relationships could be between 25 and 50 per cent less likely to develop dementia than those with few friends or family contacts.
One study of ‘super agers’ at Northwestern University in Chicago followed a group of 24 people aged 80 and over who had retained the brainpower of people in their 50s.
Recruits were selected by their ability to recall a list of 15 random words half an hour after having them read to them. An average 80-year-old remembers only five, while an average 50-year-old remembers nine or more.
The ‘super agers’, however, remembered at least nine — and some could recall all 15.
One distinguishing factor shared by all the ‘super agers’ was that of being extroverted and having many more social contacts than their peers.
The third key activity for brain health is exercise, which is just as vital for your brain as it is for your body.
Indeed, keeping physically active is one of the best ways of maintaining and even improving your brain health as you age. Countless studies have shown that regular exercise can directly improve your brain function.
Five brilliant challenges to boost your brain power
Puzzles and games are fun. But scientific studies show most ordinary puzzles don’t necessarily make you cleverer or better at handling life’s challenges.
These exercises, however, have been specifically selected to expand your capacity to think and remember better.
1 Multiply two-digit numbers in your head
Why is it so easy for most of us to multiply 6 times 3 in our head, but so difficult to multiply 16 times 32?
Part of the reason is that most of us learned our times tables as schoolchildren — so we don’t have to think of the answer — it’s already stored in our long-term memory.
We’ve seen how important your ‘working’ memory is — it’s like a mental notepad that keeps track of a conversation, remembers why you walked upstairs and helps you think through a problem.
Multiplying two-digit numbers is a good way to test your working memory — and to strengthen it in the process. Mental multiplication actually improves your working memory. It’s a fundamental skill that gets better with practice.
Here are ten problems. Do them once... and then spend five minutes a day doing other two-digit multiplication problems in your head.
18 x 21 43 x 82
96 x 58 29 x 72
35 x 19 84 x 33
17 x 71 97 x 63
24 x 45 12 x 81
2 Spell words backward in your head
Spelling words backwards forces your brain to think hard and use your working memory. Here are ten words. Look at each one, then close your eyes and spell it backwards in your head. You’ll be surprised how hard it is!
To really build your brain-power, though, you need to keep doing it. Spend just