Holding back the years: Steps to age well and improve brain health

We cannot stop the march of time but there is a range of steps we can take to help us age better and improve our brain health, says Peta Bee.     
Holding back the years: Steps to age well and improve brain health

Are you a super-ager or are you getting old before your time? Why some people defy the ageing process while others are on an accelerated path to maturity is a mystery that scientists are seeking to solve in studies that look deeply into the way our bodies deal with passing years.

Part of the answer, it seems, lies in our DNA. When researchers at the Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital looked at the brains of a group of 60- to 80-year-olds with extraordinary memory powers, they found certain key areas were similar to the brains of young people.

In memory tests, some of the ‘super-agers’ performed as well as people four to five decades younger and analysis showed their brains displayed far less of the shrinkage that typically occurs as we age.

But if some people are born to ward off the tests of time, others can take up battle. Emerging research suggests that how we live — our diet, our activity levels, our thinking — is a hugely influential part of the ageing process. Here are the 13 steps you can take to slow it down:

1. Stay active

Keeping fit as you get older can have a remarkable return in terms of healthy ageing. Adding to the existing evidence that physical activity can add years to your life is a new report from Yale University School of Medicine that shows of the 1,660 older people studied, those who exercised eventually spent 25% less time disabled or injured than those who did not.

2. Lift weights

Once we pass the mid-30s, our bodies lose muscle mass as part of a natural process called sarcopenia. Initially, losses are barely noticeable, but as we creep towards 50, the annual loss can be as much as 8% of your total muscle mass.

We can’t stop it happening, but we can stem the tide. And the best way is with weight training.

In September, a study in the American Journal of Physiology revealed that resistance training improved blood flow and reduced the risk of diabetes in older adults, while Harvard University researchers found that men who did 20 minutes of daily weight training had less of an increase in the risky and age-related deep abdominal fat than men who spent the same amount of time doing activities like jogging, swimming or cycling.

And last month scientists at the University of Sydney reported that people who weight train twice a week have better brain function and lower levels of cognitive impairment — a precursor to dementia.

3. Go for a run or walk

Regular running (or walking if you have dodgy knees) also seems to slow down the aging process. Their study, published in the journal PLOS One, looked at men and women with an average age of 69 who either regularly ran or walked for exercise.

Results suggested that the runners had a more efficient walking gait and enjoyed a better quality of life because of their ability to move around more easily.

Meanwhile, Dr Arthur Kramer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Illinois, showed daily walking actually boosts the connectivity within brain circuits, which tend to diminish as years go by.

Walkers aged 60-80 also displayed better brain function when assessed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), even compared with a control group who were up to six decades younger. As the older people in the walking group became more fit, the coherence among different regions in the networks increased and became similar to those of 20-year-olds,” Kramer said.

4. Lose weight

Our brains naturally shrink with age, but scientists are now think that that obesity may accelerate the ageing of our grey matter. Pile on the pounds after 40 and your brain effectively ages by 10 years according to scientists at the University of Cambridge.

Reporting in the journal Neurobiology of Aging earlier this year, they revealed how the brains of obese people displayed key differences in white matter — the tissue that connects areas of the brain and allows for information processing — that were similar to those seen in individuals a decade older.

“The fact that we only saw these differences from middle-age onwards raises the possibility that we may be particularly vulnerable at this age,” said Dr Lisa Ronan from the University’s department of psychiatry. “It will also be important to find out whether these changes could be reversible with weight loss, which may well be the case.”

5. Take the stairs

It sounds simple, but in a recent study published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging, researchers at Concordia showed that the more flights of stairs a person climbs, the ‘younger’ their brain.

Jason Steffener, the lead researcher, used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the brains of 331 healthy adults who ranged in age from 19 to 79.

His results showed that brain age decreases by 0.58 years for every daily flight of stairs climbed. “In comparison to many other forms of physical activity, taking the stairs is something most older adults can and already do at least once a day, unlike vigorous forms of physical activity,” Steffener said.

6. Do a crossword

A Canadian review of 25,000 healthy people showed that, when it comes to preserving brain power, a mental workout makes the biggest difference in later life.

The ‘use it or lose it’ approach involves simple mental strategies like those such as crossword puzzles and Sudoku.

In one study reviewed by the Canadian team, people were tested on everyday tasks such as finding a number in a phone book. Those who did regular mental training performed significantly better.

7. Play video games

At the University of Iowa, volunteers who played a brain-teasing video game for an average two hours a week for five weeks were shown to delay the natural decline in cognitive skills by as much as seven years.

“We’ve shown that 10 hours is enough to slow the decline by several years,” said Fredric Wolinsky, a professor at the university’s college of public health. “We saw a range across all our tests from a minimum of a year-and-a-half all the way up to about six-and-a-half years of recovery or improvement.”

8. Learn French or Spanish

Learning a new skill or a second language can also have a positive effect on the brain, helping to improve reading, verbal fluency and intelligence, a University of Edinburgh study showed.

In his study of 262 people in their 70s, Dr Thomas Bak, from the centre for cognitive ageing and cognitive epidemiology, discovered that those who spoke two or more languages had significantly better cognitive abilities compared to what would have been expected from baseline test results taken when they were 11 years old.

9. Eat more fish

A Mediterranean-style approach to eating with plenty of oily fish (mackerel, herring, tuna) that are rich in healthy omega 3 fats, was shown to significantly decreased the levels of the protein known as C-reactive protein, one of the main inflammatory marker linked with the ageing process.

Vegeterian? Don’t worry. You can get the omega-3 fatty acids from walnuts, kelp and chia seeds.

10. Cut out sausages and salami

When scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital analysed the diet records gathered of 131,342 people, over three decades, they found those who had replaced processed red meat — sausages, bacon, salami, and pork pies — with vegetables, nuts, and cereals experienced a 32% drop in death rates.

Among those who had increased their intake of animal protein by as little as 10% of their total calories, there was an 8% greater chance of dying from a heart problem and 2% higher risk of all-cause death, said researchers in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine this year.

11. Pack in pomegranate

The fruit has been shown to contain a ‘miracle molecule’ that strengthens ageing muscles and possibly extends life by charging up our cell mitochondria, the tiny power packs that provide energy, in people who have the right balance of gut bacteria.

12. No more fizzy drinks

Sparkling drinks like cola and lemonade were shown in a study published in the American Journal of Public Health to accelerate ageing. The researchers found that people who drank one 350ml bottle of fizzy drink a day had DNA changes typical of cells 4.6 years older.

13. Load up on your greens

A single daily serving of green vegetables such as cabbage, spring greens, broccoli kale, or spinach, can slow mental decline and help to stave off dementia. According to scientists at Rush University medical centre in Chicago, older adults who ate one or two servings of the greens experienced slower mental deterioration than those who ate no leafy greens at all. Time to tuck in.

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