Living longer: don’t let your body outlive your brain

Posted on March 24, 2015 by Eleanor McKenzie
Mature couple laughing

I can see that I am physically ageing, and many of us are comfortable with that natural progression when things start to head south; once we’ve got over the initial shock. But we can’t see what is happening to our brains. Does our grey matter sag and bag in the same way that the flesh just above my knees does? Thanks to the many scientific advances, we know a lot more about the ageing brain, and how to keep it younger.

Does your DNA determine your brain age?

Scientists at Edinburgh University’s Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) have just been awarded £1 million to try and establish why some people’s brains age better than others. This new research is based on a longitudinal study on brain function and ageing that the centre has been running with funding from Age UK. The participants are called the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936: a group of Edinburgh residents born in 1936 who took the 11+ test. I’m sure many of you remember that exam!

The participants’ results in this test plus their results when they retake the 11+ now, form the basis of the already decade-long investigation into brain power and health. The scientists also examine the individuals’ aptitude for other mental tests and the people go through regular rigorous medical examinations that look at all aspects of physical health. They link all these test results to the person’s genetic profile: the hope is that the study will provide new insights into the relationship between your DNA, your mental abilities and your physical health, and the effect they all have on ageing.

Mature woman painting

Don’t leave it all to your genes

Are there things we can do to keep our brain functions ‘younger’ for longer, or is everything dependent on our genes? Well, according to Harvard Health, keeping your brain stimulated is most important. Sudoku, crosswords, maths problems and learning a  language are examples of activities that generate new brain cells. Art classes, pottery and crochet require manual dexterity, and the Harvard medics think this may also play a significant role in cell renewal.

You should also pay attention to the following: exercising your muscles can apparently empower your mind as well as your biceps. So, exercise is important, as is nutrition. Your brain loves the B vitamins, but keep your calorie intake down because weight control decreases your chances of experiencing mental decline.

High blood pressure has an effect on your cognitive abilities and cholesterol levels also have an impact on brain functions. You need to achieve balance with this, because high levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol can put you at risk of dementia. However, a too low level of HDL (good) cholesterol is also a dementia risk factor. Have it checked regularly and avoid tobacco totally, plus keep alcohol consumption at a moderate level. You knew that was coming, right?

Protect your head if you participate in sports with a risk of head injury because concussion can increase the chance of cognitive impairment by a factor of 10. And, warn your children and grandchildren about head protection, because a head injury early in life can also affect mental agility later on.

Good mental health and adequate sleep also boost your brain’s ability to score highly on mental tests. Of course, there are people who are exceptions to all these suggestions, but it seems sensible to follow most of them, even if you don’t stick to them rigidly.

Make sure your brain keeps up with your body

And, here’s something else to consider; you don’t want to “outlive your brain”, something which is now a distinct possibility, according to Dr Richard Carmona. He says that with many of us already living to 90, and an increase in the centenarian population not far off, we need to consider the fact that our brains start to deteriorate at 70. His answer is staying trim and working on your ‘neuroplasticity’; that’s brain cell renewal. As he points out, “we used to think that decay in the brain was irreversible, but now we know that you can start learning the piano at 90.”

With that in mind, I’m off to order a home exercise bike and a year’s supply of sesame seeds and quinoa. I’m not sure I want to take the 11+ again though; I’ll stick to my cryptic crosswords and crochet.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.