The disease I’m most afraid of is dementia, which last year was the most common cause of death in the UK, after Covid. I fear it because I hate the idea of slowly losing my mind and becoming a burden to others.
My dad, who died in 2003 aged 74, showed early signs of it. He was a lovely man and remained cheerful and gregarious right up to the end.
So much so that we discovered, after he died, that he’d been giving away quite large sums of money to people he met in pubs. He was a generous man but I did wonder if this had been a sign of mental decline.
In fact, recent research by the University of Southern California suggests that it possibly was. The study showed that older people who have early Alzheimer’s are more willing to give money to a stranger.
The disease I’m most afraid of is dementia, which last year was the most common cause of death in the UK, after Covid. I fear it because I hate the idea of slowly losing my mind and becoming a burden to others
The researchers recruited a group of adults with an average age of 69 without obvious signs of dementia. They were put through a series of cognitive tests and then given money — and asked to share it with an anonymous person, who they chatted with online.
Results showed those who did poorly in the brain tests gave away the most money.
This could mean that people in the early stages of dementia are more generous than the rest of us — however, the researchers fear that what this test really shows is that they are much more vulnerable to exploitation.
Protecting your loved ones against this is clearly vital. But what can you do to reduce your risk of developing dementia in the first place? Here are some findings from research that I’ve incorporated into my life:
Get an eye test: According to the Royal National Institute for Deaf People charity, mild hearing loss can double your risk of developing dementia; severe hearing loss can increase the risk fivefold.
And now a review of studies, by Peking University in China, has found that older people who have untreated sight problems were nearly three times as likely to have signs of cognitive impairment as those who didn’t.
One theory about this link between sight and hearing loss and dementia is that when your senses decline, your brain has to work harder to compensate, leaving it with less capacity to do things such as store memories.
Another theory is that if you struggle with your eyesight or hearing then you risk becoming socially isolated, and that, we know, massively increases the risk of dementia.
Having regular tests, which I do, means problems can be spotted and sorted earlier. I also have some hearing loss and if I reach the stage of needing a hearing aid, I won’t hesitate to get one.
One theory about this link between sight and hearing loss and dementia is that when your senses decline, your brain has to work harder to compensate, leaving it with less capacity to do things such as store memories
Invest in plants: Air pollution is bad for your lungs, your heart — and your brain. The main danger comes from tiny airborne particles, called PM2.5, produced when fossil fuels are burned, and which are so small they can travel through your lungs, into your blood and to your brain.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says air pollution is not only one of the leading causes of death, but also of dementia.
A study by Washington University in the U.S. found that being exposed to a modest increase in air pollution particles (specifically, an increase of a millionth of a gram per cubic metre of air — by way of comparison the WHO’s recommended guideline limit is an annual 10 millionths of a gram per cubic metre) over the course of a decade led to a 16 per cent greater risk of dementia.
To reduce my exposure I try to drive only at quieter times to avoid being stuck in traffic and I cycle down quieter back routes. My wife Clare and I have filled our home with houseplants, as a 2019 study suggested they’re good at trapping PM2.5 particles.
We’ve also decided not to buy a wood-burning stove, as these produce large amounts of PM2.5.
Start painting: I recently went to a drawing class, the first since I was a child. While I won’t be giving up the day job, taking up a challenging activity is likely to be good for your brain and painting seems to be particularly beneficial.
A few years ago I was involved in a study with Newcastle University where we recruited 30 volunteers, put them through a battery of cognitive tests, then randomly allocated them to walking briskly for three hours a week, doing puzzles, or joining a weekly art class that featured a life model called Steve. After three months, our volunteers redid the cognitive tests and though all the groups improved, the winners were the art class group. Naked Steve had clearly made a big impression.
Eat green: What you eat has a big impact on your body, but which diet is best for your brain?
A recent study in Israel compared the impact of a low-fat diet, a Mediterranean diet (lots of veg, oily fish and olive oil) and a green Mediterranean diet — which is like the Mediterranean diet, but the participants also had to drink three cups of green tea and a green shake made of Mankai duckweed (a plant from Southeast Asia) that’s packed with protein and other nutrients.
At the end of the 18-month study, both Mediterranean diets had improved the participants’ brain volume, but it was the Greenies who came out on top. The researchers think this is because the green diet is especially rich in polyphenols, a type of antioxidant that can cross into the brain and encourage the production of new brain cells.
It’s not just green foods that are rich in polyphenols; you also find lots in berries, red onions and apples. A great excuse to eat more strawberries this summer.
I’ve never wanted a conventional tattoo, but I’m intrigued by a new ‘electronic’ tattoo that measures blood pressure, developed by the University of Texas at Austin, in the U.S.
These temporary tattoos are made of graphene, a substance that conducts electricity. Strips of the graphene are placed along the main arteries in your forearm; they then send a small charge into your skin and analyse your body’s response.
From this your blood pressure is calculated with surprising accuracy. I want one.
Being generous is good for you
A few months ago, I wrote about how we’d applied to house a Ukrainian family. Well, a couple of weeks ago, with help from my local MP, Sarah Green, they finally got their visas and are now settling into our home.
The family consists of a mother and her three children; a boy of ten, a girl of 12 and a boy of 17. Their father and most of their relatives are still in Ukraine, living disturbingly close to Russian-occupied territory.
I’m proud of how local schools are bending over backwards to find places for the children, and how local groups are supporting Ukrainian refugees with things such as food and second-hand bikes.
Research suggests that one of the best ways to make yourself happy is to share with others — and this war has shown just how generous people can be.
If you’re thinking about taking part in the Homes For Ukraine Scheme, I can strongly recommend it, but clearly this is a long-term commitment as we have no idea when they can safely go home.
Follow your nose to find friends
Do you have friends with whom you clicked the first time you met them? One of my favourite authors, Fyodor Dostoevsky, once wrote: ‘We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight.’
Perhaps he should have written ‘at first smell’, as a study by the Weizmann Institute of Science showed that how we smell seems to play a big part in instant friendships.
They recruited 20 pairs of friends who got on well from their first meeting, and compared their natural body odours. They were asked to use unscented soap and lay off perfume and deodorant for a few days, then wear clean T-shirts for 24 hours.
When the T-shirts were analysed, it turned out that the friends had a natural body odour that was more similar to each other’s than to random strangers.
They also put pairs of strangers together to chat, then measured their body odour.
The ones who got on best were those who were closely matched, odour-wise. So it seems clear that when it comes to friendships, we follow our nose.