Fulfilled living in later life

Tuesday 6th April 2021

Talking helps supercharge your brain

Louise Morse

Human brains are hard wired to socialise, and isolation is as harmful as smoking or drinking too much alcohol

It is good news for us easy talkers, but is just as good for the listeners, too. Human brains are hard wired to socialise, and isolation is as harmful as smoking or drinking too much alcohol. Isolation even decreases the effectiveness of sleep. But social contacts are good, even small touches like saying hello to passers-by when out for a walk (and seeing their reactions), telephoning friends, Zooming, face-to-face over laptops and tablets and of course, as lockdown eases, meeting together. It’s one of the facts shared by Professor James Goodwin, in his new book, Supercharge your Brain. Professor Goodwin is director of the Brain Health Network and a founding member of the Global Council on Brain Health. He explains how a few easy lifestyle tweaks can make our brains as robust as a super-ager’s, those people aged 60-plus with agile, active brains who perform memory tests as well as people in their 20s.

Being a “superager” isn’t down to your genetic inheritance as many lifestyle factors affect brain health and ageing. The ratio is a quarter from our genes and three quarters from our lifestyles so it’s never too late to supercharge your brain and describes the things you need to do.

The key word is exercise, and restricting how long you sit in your chair. One study showed that a group of people who exercised twice a week for a year increased the size of the hippocampus, the brain’s learning centre, by two percent. This is important, as our brain, like our muscles, loses ‘mass’ each year once we are past 50. We also need to talk to people as much as possible, using technology when we must, but not replacing their company with it. Studies have found loneliness amongst younger people who communicate mainly through technology.

We are prisoners of our supermarket food rut and eat the same things on rotation, but we should avoid processed foods and have a more varied diet. Processed foods deprive our brains of certain nutrients, such as vitamin B12 which is only really found in animals or Marmite. The recommendation is to eat a teaspoon of Marmite a day. Then there is Vitamin D - there are receptors for Vitamin D in parts of our brains responsible for learning and memory, but this vitamin is limited in food sources. Our bodies make it from sunlight, but supplementation is advised between November and March. It was thought to be a factor during the Covid pandemic, when many patients were found to be lacking it.

Super-agers also eat fewer calories than the average person. ‘Overeating fills the brain with free radicals,’ says Professor Goodwin. He recommends intermittent fasting and not eating after 8pm or before 10 am, which gives a 14 hour fast. ‘By then my brain has switched from using glucose to ketos for its energy and evidence shows this is good for brain performance.’ he said. He recommends nourishing the gut with whole, fibrous foods. He eats a whole apple, core included, ’because that’s where all the fibre is.’

We also need to reduce stress as stress produces hormones in the brain that have a toxic effect. Here’s where knitting comes into its own. A 2013 survey of around 3,500 knitters showed a correlation between knitting and cognitive function. The more they knitted, the better their brain function.

Other brain superchargers are reading, learning a new language, and playing a musical instrument. Dr Melissa Maguire of the Yorkshire Brain Research Centre has studied the impact of musical training on the brain and notes that it activates both sides of the brain. Before and after cognitive tests have shown that people in their 70s and 80s who had a short musical training course improved on memory testing.

Finally – a warning. You might think that multitasking is a sign of a super brain but think again! It can actually lower your IQ. Studies have shown that doing one thing at a time, rather than all at once, strengthens our ability to learn, understand and apply new information. More importantly, multitasking is linked to increased cortisol production, a stress hormone that leaves us feeling tired when we need energy to concentrate. People who multitask during cognitive tasks experienced a drop in their IQ levels like that expected if they’d stayed up all night or smoked marijuana, a study at the University of London found.