6 Jan 2012

Stop the brain drain: How to work your greatest muscle

As research suggests our brain’s cognitive faculties may start to decline much earlier than previously thought, Channel 4 News scratches its head for ways to keep your mind sharp.

Cognitive decline may begin earlier than previously thought, what can you do to ensure you keep your brain in tip top condition? (Getty)

Brains are essentially pretty lazy. They do what they have to and often no more. We also tend to overestimate how effective our brains are, especially our memories, as a paper written in 2011 by US psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris suggested.

They found that what a sample of people thought about a selection of beliefs related to memory ran counter to what established scientific research had found.

For example 77.5 per cent of those surveyed agreed that “people generally notice when something unexpected enters their field of view, even when they’re paying attention to something else” a belief with which 13 out of 16 experts disagreed.

Or that “memory works like a videocamera” (all of the experts disagreed this is the case). Having established that our memories may not live up to the billing we give them, perhaps we should go a little easier on ourselves if we mis-remember something, even if it is important.

Keep it sharp

But can we whip them into shape and help stop them slipping off into some sort of cerebral dotage?

One thing that is agreed upon is to keep learning. Advice from Harvard University suggests that a “higher level of education is associated with better mental functioning in old age” perhaps because it persuades people to get into the habit of being mentally active rather than passive. Do a crossword, a sudoku, or learn a new word each day and use it.

Brain decline begins at 45 new research suggests, but is that the whole picture?

You should also read the news (you’ve cracked that one already) to stay up to date about what is going on in the world.

The report also suggests repeating what you want to remember. If you need to recall someone’s name for example, repeat it back to them when you are introduced. Be wary of repeating it too often however, as you may attract certain looks.

If you believe that your memory is getting worse, you may be contributing to that decline or at least your own belief in how good your recall actually is. Harvard’s “Improving Memory” report says the more we use our brains, “the stronger it will become and the longer it can stay strong”.

Better late than never: some famous names who had success later in life
Writer Mary Wesley published two children’s books in her fifties but perhaps her best-known novel, The Camomile Lawn, was published when she was 71.
Another writer, Flora Thompson wrote the famous Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy when she was in her 60s.
Danish mathematician Caspar Wessel published his first paper aged 54 in which he posited the idea of vectors.
The composer Johannes Brahms, having at 57 vowed to give up composing, wrote acknowledged masterpieces in the years before his death.

Mind and body

But it is not just our brains that could help us survive the drift into old-age. Eating a healthy diet, managing stress levels and maintaining a low level of cholesterol for example, all contribute to keeping conditions such as Alzheimer’s at bay.

Keeping our bodies healthy is important for our mental wellbeing; if you feel well, you may be less inclined to think of yourself as old and past it. Quitting smoking, getting exercise and making sure you have regular health check ups – even if you secretly dread them – will all ensure you stay as healthy as possible for as long as necessary.