Life-affirming ways to stave off dementia

Life-affirming ways to stave off dementia: Ahead of a major series by one of the world’s top neurosurgeons to boost your brain into old age, the ingenious tips that’ll help keep you sharp

As part of our 30-day Health Kick month, leading science journalist Helen Thomson reveals some scientifically proven ways to boost brain power.

By the time we’re 40, many of us will notice that we can’t remember new names. But it’s not that our brains are overloaded, as we might try to tell ourselves — in fact, our memory capacity is almost unlimited.

Rather, gradual changes in brain structures, such as a reduction in connections between nerve cells, make the creation and retrieval of memories less efficient.

As well as slowing down, certain other memory skills shift to a lower gear with age. Multi-tasking, for instance, becomes more difficult.

But it’s never too early to start the good habits that will help us in our golden years … By the time we’re 40, many of us will notice that we can’t remember new names. But it’s not that our brains are overloaded, as we might try to tell ourselves — in fact, our memory capacity is almost unlimited [File photo] Keep friendships- and learn the violin

One option that appears to be beneficial to brain health is being socially active.

Some evidence suggests that being married is strongly associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia — in theory because of the regular conversation and mental effort involved in maintaining a good relationship.

But no one type of social contact is better than another, so work on your friendships whenever possible.

Something else you may want to try is learning a language or musical instrument. People who are bilingual develop dementia later than monolinguals, and musical training seems to protect some areas of the brain from decline. Your toothbrush is an anti-ageing tool

Exercising your heart, muscles and lungs can boost brain chemicals that help ward off dementia, while a good diet can add years of healthy cognitive function. Meanwhile, a good night’s sleep can help clear out potentially damaging brain gunk each night.

But perhaps one of the most novel ideas to come from recent studies is that good gum health may be vital to the prevention of cognitive decline.

A 2017 study followed the lives of 8,000 people in China for 13 years, recording their cognitive function and tooth count, and found a strong correlation between tooth loss and a drop in cognitive function, even after accounting for the natural changes that occur in both with age.

Fast-forward to 2019 and a landmark paper offered compelling evidence that Alzheimer’s may be caused by a bacterium involved in gum disease.

For decades, the accumulation of two types of proteins in the brain — amyloid and tau — has been the focus of researchers studying the disease. Should you worry?

When is memory loss a worrying sign and when is it not?

It’s a question many people ask — and while there is no clear test, one sign things aren’t normal is the inability to summon a memory even when you are prompted.

With normal ageing, it may take you longer to remember, but in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, the information itself has degraded so having more time won’t help. When these kinds of shifts happen, or your memory interferes with daily life, it’s time to see a GP.

The proteins form sticky plaques and tangles that destroy neurons (or nerve cells, the basic working units of the brain). But it has become obvious that trying to clear these proteins isn’t working; Alzheimer’s drug development has had a 99 per cent failure rate.

The landmark paper, published in the journal Science Advances, shone a spotlight on the main bacterium involved in gum disease, Porphyromonas gingivalis.

Previous studies had shown that this bacterium invades and inflames brain regions affected by Alzheimer’s; that gum infections can worsen symptoms in mice with Alzheimer’s; and this can cause Alzheimer’s-like brain inflammation, neural damage and amyloid plaques in healthy mice.

In 2019, scientists reported finding the two enzymes that P. gingivalis uses to feed on tissue in almost all the 54 human Alzheimer’s brain samples they examined. These protein-degrading enzymes are called gingipains, and were found in higher levels in brain tissue that had more tau fragments and more cognitive decline.

If that wasn’t enough, when the researchers looked for signs of P. gingivalis in the brains of healthy people, although they found some, these were at low levels. This supports the theory that P. gingivalis doesn’t get into the brain as a result of Alzheimer’s — but may be the cause.

It is not necessarily the only cause, of course, but for now it might be wise to take care to prevent gum disease just in case. Become a memory champion…

It sounds implausible, but study after study shows it to be true: superior powers of recall are due to well-practised strategies and memory tricks, not any innate talent for remembering.

The brains of ‘mnemonists’, or memory champions, look like everyone else’s — and it is easier to become one than you think.What you need to practise is the ‘method of loci’. This involves imagining a route you know well, such as your commute to work, and associating the information to be learned with landmarks along that route.You can retrieve the information later by making the same journey in your mind and visualising the objects connected to each landmark. It really works — scientists have proved it time and again with volunteers who previously had no special powers of recall.The secret of this trick is that the brain prefers storing images to words and numbers — particularly if you place those images in an orderly location. The more bizarre you can make this imagery, the more easily it will be recalled. Get on your bike three times a week There is one miracle cure that’s guaranteed to slow the ageing processes in your body, including your brain — and that’s exercise.It can fend […]

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