It’s a cruel scientific fact that our brains start to slow down past 40. But a brilliant new book reveals how to beat the inevitable slump. It can be frightening to accept that ageing means a decline in brainpower. Lots of stress and not exercising can negatively affect brain chemicals.
Dr Mike Dow advises on how best to keep your brain sharp and alert. Research shows our brains start to noticeably slow by the time we reach 40, and up to 17 percent of people over 65 will end up with some form of mild cognitive impairment, such as occasional difficulties concentrating, finding the correct word, focusing, or remembering where on earth we’ve put the car keys.
Episodes of feeling grumpy, miserable or anxious are extremely common in middle age, too, and the truth is that between 6 and 15 percent of patients who meet the criteria for ‘mild cognitive impairment’ will go on to develop full dementia. But this doesn’t have to happen. New research suggests that brain fog – that huge grey area between normal functioning and the dreaded dementia or Alzheimer’s disease – may, in fact, be reversible.
As a psychotherapist, I have studied the complexities of the brain for years, and I am convinced the way we eat, sleep, work and live has a profound effect.
The brain relies on a complex symphony of chemicals to keep mood in check and to function properly, but if you disturb that balance you can very swiftly become depressed, unable to sleep and too workedup to concentrate properly.
If you are eating the wrong foods, getting insufficient exercise or sleep, overindulging in social media and TV, having too much stress and too little downtime, you will almost certainly be destabilising the levels of three crucial brain chemicals.
They are serotonin (which helps you feel calm, serene, optimistic and self-confident), dopamine (responsible for making you feel excited, motivated, and energised) and the stress hormone, cortisol (which revs you up into a high gear when you need it).
Also, I can’t emphasise enough the importance of omega-3s. They are the best fats for your brain because they prevent inflammation – the key, we now know, to cognitive function and warding off depression, stress and anxiety.
But you really can reverse these trends and take charge of your brain health in as little as two weeks if you remove the blocks that keep you stuck and give your brain the materials it needs to operate effectively.
BOOST BRAIN FATS
A good supply of healthy fats in your diet can help you feel, and think, better.
• Enjoy plenty of olive oil (packed with anti-inflammatory compounds, found in some studies to prevent Alzheimer’s and depression) and oily fish, and choose organic meat if you can.
• Choose organic: factory-farmed meats tend to be higher in omega-6 fats (which can feed the harmful brain-dulling inflammatory process in our bodies) whereas organic meat and dairy tends to be naturally higher in anti-inflammatory, brainhealthy omega-3s.
• Think of fish as prevention and treatment for your addled brain. Studies show just six months of fish-oil supplements is enough to improve verbal fluency.
• Pick extra virgin olive oil for salad dressings and plain olive oil for cooking – virgin olive oil isn’t stable at high temperatures.
• Avoid soyabean oil – it’s packed with unhelpful omega-6 fats.
Artificial sweeteners might be saving you a few calories but they cannot give your brain the nutrients it needs for optimal performance.
Your brain needs a readily available supply of blood sugar to keep it running, and sweeteners deprive it of this.
Worse, sweeteners have been shown to disrupt the levels of good bacteria in the gut, so disrupting production of the happy-hormone serotonin (much of which is manufactured in the gut).
TURN OFF YOUR PHONE
Scaling down social media use and electronics will boost your ability to focus and concentrate.
Facebook likes, Twitter retweets, Snapchat pics, TikTok videos and Instagram followers exert an addictive pull – all those lights, dings and ads scrolling across the screen give our brains a tiny hit of dopamine – just as it would for a compulsive gambler sitting in front of a slot machine.
• Turn off your phone or its ringer as often as possible and don’t leave it charging in your bedroom so it doesn’t disturb your sleep (even subconsciously). Aim to have one full day of the weekend
completely phone free.
• Dump the Kindle at night and read books instead.
• Cut back on multi-tasking – focus on doing one thing at a time and give that all your attention. This can be a powerful antidote to the barrage of distractions of social media.
SWITCH OFF THE TV
Engaging in leisure activities helps stimulate the brain: studies show that reading, playing board games and musical instruments, dancing, travelling, knitting and gardening all reduce risk of cognitive decline and protect you against senior moments.
But TV does the opposite – studies show watching TV increases your risk of cognitive impairment by 20 per cent (whereas reading reduces it by 5 per cent).
DRINK A GLASS OF BURGUNDY OR CHAMPAGNE
One alcoholic drink per day (two for men) may help keep toxins out of the brain, reducing your risk of dementia by as much as 23 percent. The benefits hold for all types of alcohol, but studies show wine, particularly red wine, works best.
The red grape skin is rich in a potent antioxidant called resveratrol, and among red wines, pinot noir has very high levels. If you prefer a lighter drink, try champagne – research suggests the phenolic acid it contains may prove a powerful weapon to help you think better.
A glass of red wine with dinner may lessen blood-sugar spikes by preventing intestinal glucose absorption and reducing your liver’s production of glucose. Red wine appears to be more effective in this regard than white.
But don’t go crazy: heavy drinking (defined as more than three to four drinks per day) is associated with increased risk of dementia.
SPICE IT UP
Turmeric contains a plant compound called curcumin, which has major anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and increases levels of a protein called BDNF (brain-derived neurotropic factor) which has been dubbed ‘Miracle Gro’ for the brain.
And in addition to making you think better, turmeric will make you feel better, too, possibly increasing serotonin in the brain. Studies show that for fighting Alzheimer’s disease, low doses of
turmeric over a long period of time are more effective than very high doses.
So rather than relying on an occasional Indian takeaway for your turmeric fix, aim to eat one food containing turmeric with a grind of fresh black pepper (which makes the turmeric more easily absorbed by the body) every day. Just add a teaspoon of turmeric to soups, stews and salad dressings.