Neuropsychologist Dr Hannah Korrel reveals the best ways to train your brain to get smarter and sharper with age.
Ageing. It should be a process we revere as we transition into the smartest years of our lives based on the culmination of all of the amazing experience and learning we have accrued over the years. And yet, ‘ageing’ has instead been given the rubber stamp as something ‘bad’, a slow, reluctant march to forgetfulness or, worse still, dementia.
This is not the way it has to be.
Believe it or not, today you have the most knowledge than any other day in your life because today you have the most experience of living. This is what gives us dynamic neuroplastic brain development (the good brain juju)! Each day going forward for the rest of your life, you have the opportunity to build on that neuroplasticity, either a little or a lot. Below are the neuropsych secrets on how to make sure you maximise this.
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The ultimate key to ageing smart: Good cognitive reserve
Just like your eyes get wrinkly and your skin gets sunspots, your brain ages, too. So, if we all lived forever, eventually we would all show signs of dementia as our brain gets so old that the wrinkles finally start impacting our memory and our abilities in everyday life.
Keeping sharp versus showing signs of ageing depends on your amount of cognitive reserve. This is like a buffer – think of dementia like a little pacman that eats his way down this buffer until eventually, it’s all eaten away and you start showing symptoms like poor memory. The bigger your buffer, the longer you will go without showing signs of cognitive ageing.
How to get smarter with age
Research tells us that some of the best ways to achieve good cognitive reserve include the following:
1. Never stop learning
This means always keeping your mind active. It doesn’t have to be as extreme as university classes; ‘always learning’ simply means taking in new information. It doesn’t have to be super hard or unenjoyable. They can be things like learning a new game, learning a skill like dancing or painting, taking French class, or even just learning from a documentary.
The more ‘hands on’ and active the learning is, the better. So, keep yourselves and your loved ones engaged in life by enrolling in groups, courses and hobbies. It could even be as simple as weekly games night with the family – anything that means you learnt something new.
2. Stay social
Often as we age, we don’t go out as much and become home-bodies. These represent missed opportunities for your brain to practice neuroplasticity. Social interactions are unpredictable (you never know exactly what will happen and what will be said/done).
It keeps your brain alert and active to be social. By continuing to stay socially connected, you are keeping a robust and healthy cognitive reserve. This is especially important in our older years like 50 onward.
3. The Mediterranean Diet
Blue zones (like Japan, Greece and Costa Rica) are special areas in the world that have been found to have less rates of dementia than the rest of the world.
Researchers think this may be because of some of the common things they eat in those areas, such as lots of ‘good’ fats like that from fish and plants. This called ‘the Mediterranean diet’. If you think about it, your neurons are lined by FAT – it’s called the myeline sheath. You need good fats in your diet to keep these linings nice and healthy.
This diet is also very moderate in alcohol consumption. Alcohol is literally what we in the biz call ‘neurotoxic’ for your brain… so none is best, or if you must, one to two drinks, a couple of times a week. Soz, guys.
This is huge for your brain. By continuing to move your body, not only do you stave off the effects of physical poor health, but good physical fitness has also been associated with less likelihood of dementia.
This may be because exercise is one of the mechanisms through which we obtain Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNT), which is the building blocks for all the neurotransmitters your brain needs to actually function. You also get BDNT from the foods you eat. So move and feed your body in a healthy manner and your mind will reflect that.
Today we have the research and technology to help us optimise our lives to live to our best potential. At the end of the day, these resources can only do you good if you actually take the time to use them. Remember, it is never too late to start. Even people already in their sixties and older can see the benefit of doing the above. So start today, because tomorrow will thank you.
Neuropsychologist Hannah Korrel is the author of How to Break Up with Friends and has spent over a decade becoming an expert in why the brain makes us do the things we do. A fierce mental health advocate, Dr Korrel brings neurology and psychology together to explain common life dilemmas, minus the BS. Find her on Instagram @nobullpsych.