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Keep your brain sharp - you're never too young to start

Don’t wait until your 60th birthday to think about keeping your brain sharp — start minding your mind while you’re still young says Associate Professor Sharon Naismith of Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Research Institute.

Many lifestyle habits formed in our 20s, 30s and 40s can affect how well — or badly — our brain works later in life. Some of them, like alcohol consumption, smoking and use of other drugs, can affect the brain directly. Others, including how physically active we are, can affect our general health and in turn, this can influence how well our brain works in the future.

What can cause problems with thinking?

Age-related changes

Starting from our 20s each of us can expect some normal, age-related changes in brain function that affect the speed at which the brain works.

Use of tobacco, alcohol and other recreational drugs

Regular long-term use of some drugs including tobacco, marijuana and ecstasy may also affect memory and how well we process information, whatever our age.

There is some evidence suggesting that small amounts of alcohol — combined with regular alcohol-free days — may be of some benefit to maintaining good cognitive function in older adults. However, this is not reason alone to develop an alcohol-drinking habit. Many factors can affect your risk of dementia, of which alcohol is only one. There is also evidence that excessive consumption of alcohol, whether over a long period of time or as regular episodes of binge drinking, can lead to health problems including brain damage and an increased risk of dementia.

Research also suggests binge drinking may cause changes to the structure of the adolescent brain.

“We know these changes affect the part of the brain which controls executive function — things like reasoning, paying attention and planning. In younger people, the parts of the brain that control these functions are still developing and so the effects may be particularly detrimental, especially if heavy alcohol use is continued over longer periods,” Sharon Naismith says.

Changes caused by disease such as Alzheimer’s and other dementias

These changes are caused by the effects of disease on the brain. Although it’s not clear yet what leads to Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form of dementia), researchers have a better understanding of vascular dementia (the second most common kind). The word vascular means related to blood vessels and vascular dementia happens as a result of damage to blood vessels in the brain caused by high blood pressure or high levels of cholesterol, for example.

“Just as problems with blood vessels can cause problems with the heart, they can also harm the brain,” says Professor Naismith. “But if we look after our blood vessels, we reduce not only the risk of heart disease, but of vascular dementia and maybe even Alzheimer’s disease too,” she says.

How can I help keep my brain working well?

Keep blood pressure and cholesterol levels healthy

Raised levels of blood pressure and blood cholesterol at mid-life are linked to a higher risk of dementia and depression.

Reduce your risk of diabetes

Diabetes has been linked to a higher risk of dementia — a likely reason is damage to the small blood vessels in the brain caused when diabetes isn’t well controlled.

Don’t skimp on sleep

“We know that sufficient sleep plays a crucial role in cognition, but it’s also about getting enough of the right kind of sleep, including enough of the slow wave deeper sleep that helps the brain consolidate memory,” Sharon Naismith says.

Tips for a better night’s sleep include helping to regulate sleep hormones by getting exposure to daylight during the day but keeping lights dim at night, having regular sleep and wake times and being cautious with alcohol — too much can disrupt sleep quality.

Mind your mood

Depression does more than lower mood — it’s also detrimental to our memory and thinking skills. If you’ve been feeling low and having any problems with thinking or memory for more than two weeks, don’t be afraid to seek help from your GP. This may include treatment with certain antidepressants to help improve this.

Move your body — it’s good for your brain

Although studies haven’t shown conclusively that exercise prevents dementia, it does appear to help improve cognition (thinking) in healthy people, possibly in two different ways:

  • Exercise helps keep blood vessels healthy. When blood vessels are in good shape, sufficient blood can flow freely to the brain. Regular exercise helps promote healthy blood vessels by keeping blood pressure and blood cholesterol down.
  • Exercise may help protect brain cells. Studies in animals have found exercise increases levels of molecules called neurotrophins that protect the brain, but more research is needed to confirm if this occurs in humans too.

What about brain food?

Like any other organ, the brain needs a healthy diet with the right nutrients to help it work well – the big question is which nutrients have the most influence on maintaining healthy brain function and preventing dementia? The most promising candidates so far include:

  • Folate and vitamin B12. There’s good evidence that these two B vitamins counteract the effects of high levels of an amino acid called homocysteine in the blood. Too much homocysteine may increase your risk of heart disease and has also been linked to cognitive decline. However it’s not clear whether folate and B12 prevent problems with thinking in people without high levels of homocysteine, says Sharon Naismith. Good sources of folate include green leafy vegetables, legumes and oranges; good sources of B12 include dairy products, oily fish, red meat and yeast extracts like Vegemite. Although homocysteine levels aren’t routinely checked like levels of blood cholesterol may be, you can ask your doctor for a test.
  • Fish oil. It makes sense that fish oil helps protect the brain because of its anti-inflammatory effects on blood vessels — but there’s still no hard evidence that it prevents or slows dementia.

Keep challenging your brain

  • An active brain is a healthy brain. Studies of healthy older people suggest that keeping the brain active may improve brain function. This means more than just 10 minutes of sudoku, stresses Sharon Naismith. It means constantly challenging your brain with the kind of thinking that you don’t normally do. In other words, get out of your brain’s comfort zone: if you’re good at sudoku, spend more time on crosswords; if you’re an ace at languages, learn a musical instrument. Practising brain skills you’re already good at helps strengthen existing connections between brain cells, but challenging your brain with new skills helps the cells to form new connections.
  • Give brain training a go. There are two kinds of brain training. One is using computer software with exercises to improve brain skills and the other involves learning practical skills like using visual imagery to remember things (eg a mental picture of a rose to remember the name Rosie). Both strategies may be helpful in healthy older people, Sharon Naismith says. However it’s not clear how useful they are in people with established dementia.

Further information

Brain and Mind Research Institute

Mind your Mind



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Last published 30 April 2011