Brain smart: How to age-proof your memory

Widespread research has indicated that cognitive decline is one of our most feared aspects of ageing, saysMargaret Jennings.

DO you think that lifestyle and genetics are equally important influences on how your thinking skills — including your memory — change as you age?

The majority of those aged between 40 and 98, who took part in a survey called ‘What keeps you sharp?’ did — but, in fact, they were wrong.

Our lifestyle — and our environment and how our genes interact with it — might well account for 75% of the changes according to research. And knowing this, hopefully, should edge us towards doing what’s best for our brain.

Participants also thought incorrectly that our memory is the first thinking skill to decline as we age, when it’s more likely to be speed of thinking, a broad term associated with how quickly we take in information, for example from our senses; process that information, and then respond accordingly.

More than 3,000 people in Britain took part in the research carried out by Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, to find out people’s attitudes and beliefs about how we can keep our minds sharp in later life.

They were presented with a list of these thinking skills to assess their views on their decline: ability to remember things; speed of thinking; ability to focus/pay attention; problem-solving skills; ability with numbers; ability with words; ability to make decisions; wisdom and knowledge.

While 97% expected to see changes in their memory as they got older more than 40% thought wisdom and knowledge would not decline until their 80s.

Widespread research has indicated that cognitive decline (changes in our thinking, reasoning and memory skills) is one of our most feared aspects of ageing.

“It’s interesting to see memory as the skill people thought would be the most likely to decline and also the one they expected to decline earliest. If I’d been asked to guess in advance of seeing the results, that’s what I would have predicted people would say,” says the lead author, Dr Alan Gow, associate professor in psychiatry at Heriot-Watt.

“It’s likely there are a number of reasons for that, but perhaps a key one is that memory, both day-to-day and also aspects over longer periods, is so central to being able to do the things we want to do — like looking after ourselves and living independently, continuing to have a good quality of life and keeping our social

connections,” he tells Feelgood.

It’s also likely that people are aware that changes in memory can be one of the early signs of dementia. That’s not to say that all memory changes signal that, but it is something that people perhaps make a connection with. As a result, people are probably more aware of those little lapses in memory, especially as they get older, that might not be as apparent with other thinking skills.

Many of the questions reflected those in similar large surveys in the US and

Australia but apart from these results, released two weeks ago, there hasn’t been any other such survey in a European context, says Gow. 

“While it wouldn’t be possible to say these results would be the same for Ireland or other European countries, I’d not anticipate there being large differences in any of these beliefs and attitudes,” he adds.

Almost nine out of 10 surveyed believed there are things we can do to maintain or improve our thinking skills, but fewer than six out of 10 were sure what things might be good for that purpose.

When they were given a long list to choose from regarding things that have been explored in large research studies, or that people commonly thought might be important for brain health, these were the top five which emerged, in order of priority: having a purpose in life; healthy eating; challenging the mind with games, puzzles or other activities; sleep; physical activity.

While 71% rated having a purpose in life as the most important, in the US participants gave sleep the top spot, says Gow. “We saw similar patterns in some of the responses — for example, in both surveys, sleep, diet and exercise were among the top five things rated as “very important” for brain health.

Also, while people in both surveys reported doing a number of the activities that might be good for thinking skills, very few reported doing those things specifically with their brain health in mind.

So what should we be doing, with our brain health in mind? “A key message that’s sometimes used is that most of the ‘heart-smart’ lifestyles are also likely to be ‘brain-smart’ too,” says the professor. “That is, being physically active, having a balanced and healthy diet, not smoking and drinking in moderation if at all.

“In addition, there’s growing evidence that keeping the mind active is important — that might be about taking up a new activity, where you’re learning something for the first time, or engaging with new people. Some studies have especially looked at volunteering after retirement, for example, as that can often provide a very broad range of opportunities to engage with people, learn something new and keep active.

- healthyageing.hw.ac.uk


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