Keeping Your Brain Young and Fit
Regardless of how old you feel on the outside, it’s possible to still be peaking in terms of mental sharpness.
Young of Mind 'Superagers'
If your idea of ageing gracefully is all about staying mentally sharp, then take some inspiration from the so-called ‘Superagers’. These are people who are 80+ years old, but still think and learn like they’re much younger – anything from 20 to 60 years of age.1a,2a,2b
It’s hard to pin down exactly why some of us become superagers, but a likely factor is continuing to engage in challenging mental activities. Stepping out of your mental comfort zone seems to be a common denominator among people who age well mentally.1b
What Happens to your Brain as you Age?
Clues about what determines this kind of superageing, or lack thereof, come from what research tells us about older brains. As you age, two characteristics of your brain change:
• First is size - your brain will get a little smaller. Along with this, your brain’s nerve cells can shrink or lose their connections with other nerve cells.3A, 4A, 4F
• Second, your brain’s blood flow tends to slow down.3A, 4B
These physical changes are thought to be linked to mental (cognitive) function, and may help explain why mental function declines with age.3A, 4C
But What are Superagers Doing Differently to Prevent this Decline?
Since we’re living longer these days, it’s no surprise that research on the factors that may be responsible for preventing cognitive decline is well underway.5A What we know so far is that five interesting characteristics are common among people who live longer and age well.
• Maintaining social interaction – keeping close relationships over the years5B
• Drinking modest amounts of alcohol – a couple of glasses of wine or beer each day4D, 5C
• Moderate caffeine intake – roughly 2 cups of coffee per day5D
• Regular exercise habits – 15 minutes per day is a good start, but 30–45 minutes per day makes a bigger difference4D, 5E, 6C
• Engaging in a hobby – something that keeps you occupied for a good part of each day4D, 5F, 6A, 6B, 6D
What Can You Do?
Although no one can promise that you’ll join the elite ranks of the 5% of people who become superagers,2A here’s how you can give yourself a better chance!
• A bit of brain strain is good for you. Engaging in strenuous mental activity on a regular basis is thought to be helpful. But you’ll need to go for something that’s more challenging that a few games of Sudoku. You should aim for a tough brain workout, and something that interests you. Take a biology class if you’ve always wanted to expand your knowledge of the natural world. Or learn to play an instrument or speak another language if you’re keen on such pursuits.1C, 1D, 1H, 3E, 6A, 6B, 6D
• Exercise regularly, and don’t just say you’re tired…be puffed! While you certainly shouldn’t put yourself at unnecessary risk of injury, a good physical workout should be your aim – the idea is to get your blood pumping through your body and your brain.1E, 3B, 3C, 4D, 5G, 6C
• Remember to sleep well. Enough good sleep can help you maintain healthy memory and even clear some waste from your brain.1G
• Take dietary tips from the Mediterranean. Eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, fish and unsaturated fats is great for your brain.1F, 4E, 3D
• Have a nutritional back-up plan. If you find yourself struggling to get all the nutrients you need from your diet, consider a supplement to make up the difference.
1. Feldman Barrett L. How ‘superagers’ stay sharp in their later years. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/apr/30/work-on-your-ageing-brain-superagers-mental-excercise-lisa-feldman-barrett Accessed September 2018.
2. Dockrill P. Scientists are revealing the brain difference that turns some people into 'superagers’. Available at: https://www.sciencealert.com/less-than-5-superagers-what-they-have-in-common-elderly-sharp-cognitive Accessed September 2018.
3. McCoy K. How to stay sharp as you age. Available at: https://www.everydayhealth.com/senior-health/staying-sharp.aspx Accessed September 2018.
4. Peters R. Postgrad Med J 2006; 82(964): 84-88.
5. Walton AG. Science reveals more about the healthy habits of 'super-agers'. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2018/02/21/science-reveals-more-about-the-secrets-of-super-agers Accessed September 2018.
6. Dodge HH. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2008; 63(11): 1193-1200.