Looking after our brains
I have often been asked in my clinical practice, ‘what can I do to look after my brain?’ This question doesn’t just come from people who have suffered a traumatic brain injury, are living with a neurological condition such as multiple sclerosis, or are in the early stages of a dementia, but also from their family members and friends. Whilst brain injury and neurological illness can bring the immense importance of our brain into sharp focus, it is a question that is of ultimately of importance to us all.
So, what can we do to look after our brain and what advice can we give to patients who want to do more to promote their thinking skills?
Internationally renowned research into cognitive ageing is currently being carried out at Edinburgh University. The Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) and Age UK have produced easy to read, evidence-based advice on looking after our thinking skills. Whilst their focus is on brain health in later life, the advice is relevant to us all and in particular those who have suffered a neurological event and want to promote their brain health.
Their top tips for staying sharp in later life are:
1. Keep active
Get moving throughout the day and do physical exercises and activities that you enjoy – or try new ones. An active lifestyle and regular exercise are linked to healthier brains and sharper thinking skills in later life.
2. Don’t smoke
If you smoke, it’s best to stop. Smoking is linked with having a thinner cortex, the brain’s outer layer that is crucial for thinking skills. When you stop smoking, some reversal of this damage may be possible, but this can be very slow so it’s better to stop sooner rather than later.
3. Have regular check-ups
Have check-ups with your doctor to see if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes. These conditions are associated with higher risk of decline in thinking skills, particularly from middle-age.
4. Eat a healthy diet
Eat a diet high in fruit, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, beans and cereals; moderate in fish, dairy products and wine; and limited in red meat and poultry. This Mediterranean-style diet is linked to better brain health.
5. Maintain a healthy weight
Manage your weight through healthy eating and physical activity. Being overweight may be a risk factor for accelerated decline in thinking skills. A healthy weight is better for physical health too.
6. Take up a new activity
Take up activities or hobbies you haven’t done before. New activities might help improve thinking skills in later life as they challenge us in new ways. If you do activities in a group, the increased social interaction may play a role too.
7. Look after your sleep
Aim for an average of seven to eight hours sleep per day as this amount is related to better brain and physical health in older age. Try to get most of it at night, with only short daytime naps.
8. Learn another language
Learn and practise a language new to you. Learning and using more than one language is linked with better thinking skills in later life. And it’s never too late to start – if anything, the benefits of speaking multiple languages might increase with age.
Dr Sarah Gillanders
Consultant Clinical Neuropsychologist