None of us wants to lose the ability to think complex thoughts and solve tricky problems. How can we look after our middle-aged brains and our cognitive abilities? Here are six easy, yet sometimes so difficult, ways to increase our chances of having a healthy, well-functioning brain from midlife to old age.
1. Maintain a healthy weight
By now, everyone knows that obesity is bad for our heart and overall cardiovascular health. What has been discussed to a lesser extent, however, is that obesity could clearly speed up the ageing of our brains in middle-age.
A study from 2016 suggests that obesity has a widespread impact on the brain structure, with a notable reduction of white matter volume compared to those who are not overweight. According to the same study, it’s midlife (when you’re approximately 40 years old) in particular, when you are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects that obesity has on the brain.
Excess body weight, researchers estimate, could age the brain by as much as 10 years.
2. Keep away from junk food and excess sugar
The theory is simple: Avoid refined sugar and other nutritionally poor carbohydrates, such as white flour and white rice. Also, keep away from excess animal fat and trans fats. Instead, eat plenty of colourful vegetables, fruit and berries, accompanied by lean, healthy meats and fatty fish, nuts, seeds and good oils (such as olive oil). Remember to drink plenty of water and go easy on an overall calory intake to keep your weight in check.
In practice—when juggling work, family and other responsibilities—things are rarely that straight-forward. And occasionally it’s quite ok to resort to fast food (and even have an odd piece cake!), but only if we most of the time try to stick to a healthy diet.
One way to make it a little easier is to stock up your fridge with healthy options only. Frozen vegetables are a great friend: They are a super fast and easy option on the days when there really isn’t enough time for all that peeling and chopping.
3. Cherish your friendships and other social connections
Social engagement and strong social bonds protect us against cognitive decline. A study from 2017 found a positive connection between social network size and memory functions among middle-aged adults.
Another recent study concluded that isolation may harm our cognitive function due to less cognitive stimulation through social contact.
Aerobic exercise benefits our bodies and brains in many ways. A group of scientists discovered in 2015, that vigorous aerobic exercise increased the volume of the hippocampus, an important part of the limbic system involved in emotion, motivation, learning and memory.
The benefits of dancing go way beyond: In addition to aerobic exercise, you put your brain at work in different ways when you practice all those new dance moves and choreographies while music stimulates your brain’s reward circuits. Dancing—like any other exercise—releases endorphins, too. Furthermore, as dancing rarely is a solitary hobby, it also encourages socialising and bonding with others.
5. Learn a complex skill
Crossword puzzles and other brain games are a good way to train your working memory, but If you just stick with one thing, it’d be like doing only situps and nothing else to stay fit.
if you want to put your brain through more varied training, have a go at learning a new skill—the more complex the better.
For instance, imagine enrolling in a photography class: You get to build new social connections, learn technically a fairly complicated skill and put that newly-learned theory into practice when you go out with your camera.
6. Get enough sleep
A new study that followed 3,400 people suggests that middle-aged people who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to develop cognitive impairment.
A lack of sleep can also make us more prone to colds and cases of flu as it wreaks havoc on our immune systems. Long-term sleep will put us at risk of developing even more serious issues, such as heart conditions, obesity and diabetes.
Suggested reading: Midlife sleep – hot flashes is just one of our problems
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How do you keep your brain active? Share your ideas!
What invigorates your thinking? What makes your brain feel young again? As always, we’d love you hear your thoughts and stories! You can send us a message using our contact form or by email firstname.lastname@example.org