From the right diet to staying active, a few lifestyle tweaks can give your grey matter a new lease of life
Get those omega-3s
Our brains love the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, which is found in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel.
One study of more than 2,000 adults found eating fish twice a week appeared to reduce the risk of dementia by 44 per cent.
What makes fish – particularly oily or fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines – so beneficial for vascular or brain health is its omega 3 essential fatty acid content.
Omega 3 appears to support blood flow to the brain, which helps support memory and reduces the risk of cognitive decline.
For vegetarians and vegans, avocados, nuts, seeds and plants oils such as flaxseed and olive oil are rich in omega-3 fats.
Don’t stop moving
As if you needed any other reasons to exercise, working out is essential to your grey matter.
Getting hot and sweaty increases blood flow to the brain, which is thought to encourage enzymes to break down proteins that can build up into the damaging brain plaques, which are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s.
A 2017 review examining the effects of exercise on at-risk people found that aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking and swimming, was three times more beneficial than those who did a mixture of cardio and weights.
However, older people who do any sort of exercise at all demonstrated better cognitive ability than people who did nothing.
Nootropics are a new generation of drugs that are thought to help boost cognitive function.
The term is used to refer to any natural or synthetic substance that may have a positive impact on mental skills.
These can include known natural brain-boosting vitamins and minerals but also lesser-known herbs including ginkgo biloba (said to have neuroprotective effects and thought to help reduce the build-up of amyloid plaque linked to some forms of dementia) and Bacopa monnieri (one clinical trial found taking 300mg of it daily delayed word recall in the over 65s compared to placebo treatment).
Caffeine is also classed as a nootropic and having your usual coffee or tea pick-me-up – or even chewing caffeine gum – has been shown to help boost mental alertness, particularly if you are tired.
Learn new things
Our brain loves new things and when we are not exposed to anything new cognitive decline becomes more likely.
This doesn’t have to be ultra-challenging or daunting like learning a new language or signing up to an OU course – it can include something as simple as walking on the different side of the road on your usual route to work or brushing your teeth with your left hand when you are right-handed (or vice versa) to give your brain a mini work-out.
And it’s not all obviously ‘brainy’ stuff that is beneficial.
Eat your greens
According to a 2018 study from Rush University, just one serving of green vegetables a day for an average of 4.7 years is enough to help to slow cognitive decline, giving the study volunteers the brain of someone 11 years younger.
So load up on kale, spinach, broccoli which provide brain-friendly nutrients including vitamin K, lutein, nitrate and folate.
Boost your gut bugs
Understanding of the importance of our gut is growing by the day, particularly the relationship between our gut microbiome and the brain, called the brain-gut axis.
The theory goes that the healthier your gut is, teeming with trillions of bacteria, ideally a diverse mix of ‘friendly’ bugs, the better your brain health is.
Research shows that following the Mediterranean diet – primarily plant-based, filled with anti-inflammatory fruit and vegetables, omega 3 fatty acids, fish and extra virgin olive oil – can nurture the ‘good’ bacteria in your gut.
Loneliness can take a huge toll on our mental and physical health and it’s particularly stressful for our brains.
‘Social connectedness is important not only for our emotional health, but also for cognitive resilience’, says Professor Burianova.
‘Research has shown that feeling lonely more than doubles the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.’
She advises anyone feeling lonely not to feel bashful but to reach out to others.
A hot chocolate before bed may be doing more than helping you sleep.
A small Italian study involving healthy volunteers aged between 50 and 69 found that a specially prepared cocoa drink, containing large amounts of flavanols – powerful polyphenols – showed a decline in memory loss.
Researchers think the drink increased the blood flow to a specific region of the brain concerned with memory.
Get to bed
Unsurprisingly, a good night’s sleep has a huge impact on our cognitive health.
A 2017 Greek study showed that a lack of sleep, and poor quality sleep, were associated with poorer memory in men and women over 65.
The position you sleep in could also play a part. Researchers at Stony Brook University in New York found that sleeping on your side can more effectively contribute to a night time ‘power cleanse’ helping to remove brain waste, like beta-amyloid proteins, implicated in the development of Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases.