We might all wonder if we’re losing more spark with each birthday, but experts tell us it’s a myth that cognitive decline is inevitable.
Yes, the good news is we each have the power to maintain our mental focus and memory throughout life.
As neuroscientist Dr Daniel Levitin says in his book The Changing Mind: A Neuroscientist’s Guide to Ageing Well, “Yes, some things do slow down, but our health, happiness and mental sparkle need not.
“Most of us can go through to the end of our lives without significant memory impairment unless we have Alzheimer’s, which is rarer than most people think,” he explains over Skype.
True, we do take longer to retrieve words, we’re less adept at multitasking and may not pick up technology as quickly. But we make up for it by being more astute at solving problems, especially interpersonal ones, and by being better at identifying patterns, which makes us wise.
While the chaos of our pre-pandemic lives may have muddled our thoughts and made us fear for our brain function, social distancing may be fragmenting our focus in a different way.
“All of the stress of emails and such before the pandemic may have been unhealthy and led to chronic stress and information overload, and people may have had difficulty concentrating or trouble sleeping [because] they were so stressed,” says Dr Levitin.
“What I noticed [during lockdown] is there was not quite enough stimulation to keep our brains firing on all cylinders. We need a small amount of stress.”
The solution is approaching sharpness as a lifestyle choice. “It’s about mindfulness,” says Dr Levitin. “By mindfulness I mean being deliberate, not just letting your life unfold. But asking yourself, what do I want my life to be, how do I want to be, is this a time when I should be thinking about changing myself?”
Read on to see how you can keep your mind sharp as you age.
Try not to switch off when the subject turns to something unfamiliar. Instead, be curious. Looking outside your comfort zone not only opens your mind, it primes it. “The myth is that we don’t grow new neurons or make new brain connections when we’re older – that’s not true,” says Dr Levitin.
“Every new experience is a new brain connection, at any age. And if you stop having new experiences, your brain apathies, it slows down and that can be the beginning of a real decline.”
You might be surprised how much newness you can find. Have you taken an interest in your partner’s hobbies? Could you take a virtual tour at a far-flung museum or art gallery?
We know a fit body fosters a fit mind, but some types of exercise are more effective at sharpening memory function than others. In short, a treadmill is good, walking outside is better, bushwalking is best.
“Getting outdoors is healthy for the brain because as you navigate the three-dimensional world you’re strengthening the hippocampus, which evolved for geolocation, for navigation,” says Dr Levitin.
“Turns out it’s also the seat of all your memories. But it didn’t evolve to remember the lyrics of your favourite songs or your anniversary date, it evolved for navigation, and the greatest thing for memory is navigation.”
One night of poor sleep at age 65 or older can impair your memory for the next two weeks. Unfortunately, sleeping well also becomes more challenging with age. “After 60, the chronobiological clock degrades,” says Dr Levitin.
“You need to help it synchronise and the only way to do that is by going to sleep at the same time and waking up at the same time every day.” While you may be tempted to use alcohol and sleeping pills to knock you out, they fracture sleep so you won’t wake up refreshed.
Time to get back to basic sleep hygiene. Get exercise during the day, darken your bedroom or don a sleep mask, and pop in earplugs if you sleep with a snorer or near a noisy road.
Start building up your “cognitive reserve” as early as you can. This means nurturing a love for learning, because when you’re learning you’re growing your brain. “Get in the habit of learning new things and keep learning new things and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, which is particularly hard to do after age 50 because we tend to fall into complacency,” says Dr Levitin.
It need not be as challenging as learning Italian (though that is impressive and very beneficial). It could be exploring a different style of yoga than your usual, establishing a new herb garden on your windowsill or mastering that souffle.
If you’ve picked up a bit of chatter about ‘shrooms, it’s because some have been shown to eradicate mental fatigue and boost energy. One active called HEP (hericium erinaceus polysaccharides), which is found in some mushroom supplements, “rapidly increases gene expression of neural growth factor in the hippocampus, the seat of memory,” explains Dr Levitin.
“This could simultaneously improve the storage of new memories and the retrieval of old ones – even old memories that you thought were long gone.” Just adding mushrooms to your risottos and frittatas could help. A 2019 study of nearly 700 adults over 60 found those who ate two portions of mushrooms each week reduced their risk of cognitive impairment by 50 per cent.
There’s one memory booster that’s probably already on your plate: vitamin B12. It’s in meat, poultry, eggs, milk and fish, however vegans are prone to deficiency and we all become less adept at absorbing it as we age. “Vitamin B12 helps with the important brain structure called myelin (or white matter) and you have to be constantly removing and forming myelin,” says Dr Levitin.
Deficiency has been associated with cognitive decline. One metaanalysis found supplementation led to significant memory improvement (but it’s best to be tested by your GP first as too much B12 can be harmful).
If your home is bustling and you’re trying to work, you might benefit from some organisational techniques to gain focus and clear the clutter of distractions. First, identify your priorities each day (one or two, not 15) and tackle them first. That might be exercising or finishing a project.
Next, find the time of day when your willpower is strongest and use it to tackle any task you’d usually put off. Budgeting, bills, cleaning. Don’t be a slave to emails, messages and social media, check them at set intervals then get back to your to-do list. At night, write a new list for the next day.
There’s no scientifically proven diet for memory or brain optimisation, but for lifelong cognitive health, experts point to author Michael Pollan’s succinct advice: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. And when you do choose an animal protein, you might like to favour seafood.
You’ve probably heard that fish feeds the brain and that’s because the omega-3 fatty acids in fish can build and repair that all-important myelin in the brain which is central to memory, problem solving and focus.
When we eat fish, the oil is “accompanied by a whole bunch of micronutrients and other foodstuffs that complement it and help it work,” says Dr Levitin.
“There is an emerging body of evidence that gut microbiome affects cognition, behaviour and brain health,” says Dr Levitin, and while it’s early days, we do know that the brain chemical serotonin “is an important regulator of mood, memory, and anxiety.”
Nearly all of the serotonin that ends up in the brain is manufactured in the gut so a healthy gut is important, but we don’t yet know how to measure the quality of our gut microbiome or how to fix it. Most probiotics don’t survive the acidic journey through the gut, so look for one with evidence such as Symprove, and source probiotics in food such as yoghurt, kefir, and anything fermented such as sauerkraut or pickles.
Find your flow
Taming the brain’s “default mode network” or daydreaming mode can reward you with calmness of mind and enhanced cognitive function. This is what meditation does: reduce mind wandering and increase thought control. It’s been shown to slow or reverse cognitive decline in those with mild cognitive impairment and early Alzheimer’s.
“Even brief meditation reduces fatigue and anxiety and increases visuospatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning,” says Dr Levitin. Benefits show in four weeks or 30 hours of mindfulness practice. If meditation doesn’t work for you, look for any other enjoyable activity in which you feel fully immersed. Crafting, playing music, tai chi, colouring…
The pandemic highlighted how much we need each other for our mental health. Family bubbles are comforting, but don’t stop making new acquaintances. “Loneliness is a big killer and what you and I are doing right now, having a conversation with someone you don’t know, is the most neuroprotective thing we know of. It involves every region of the brain – it’s complicated,” says Dr Levitin.