Forgetfulness isn't inevitable, says Professor James Goodwin, author of Supercharge Your Brain.
Like grey hairs and the involuntarily groan you mutter when bending down, forgetfulness has long been regarded as an inevitable part of the midlife process.
But according to James Goodwin, a professor of physiology at Loughborough University and former chief scientist at Age UK, the scientific dogma that our brain cells decline with age, resulting in those moments where you can’t remember what you went upstairs for, is one now being challenged by experts.
“Science now shows us that not only are we able to protect our brains from the ageing process, but we can continue to grow new brain cells throughout our entire life,” he tells The Telegraph.
Here are his top six recommendations to super-charge your midlife brain:
Exercise: The real standout in terms of brain anti-ageing is exercise. Studies show exercise reduces our risk of mild cognitive decline through to Alzheimer’s. Thirty minutes of moderate to intensive movement every day is enough to reduce the risk and improve cognitive function and mood, and this can include walking the dog.
However, regular exercise doesn’t counter the effects of what Prof Goodwin calls our “love affair with the chair”. Prolonged sitting causes inflammation in the body which is “ageing for the brain,” he says. He suggests an “anti-sitting plan”: “Walk rather than drive, watch less TV. Every 30 minutes I leave my desk and walk around, making coffee or talking to my dog.”
Diet: Diet is hugely important for brain health. Particularly, a varied one. “Humans used to kill and eat pretty much anything and the diversity they enjoyed was immense - different types of meat and fish, nuts, seeds, fruits, berries, vegetables, roots. Now we are prisoners of our supermarket food rut and eat the same things on rotation.” The problem with eating this way is it deprives the brain of certain nutrients and tends to include too much processed food. He recommends a varied diet and making sure that we all get plenty of Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D (both available as supplements) and omega 3 fatty acids from cold water fish like sardine and salmon.
Hara Hachi Bu: Research shows overeating is bad news for brains, with one US study finding that eating more than the recommended calories a day from mid life onwards doubles your risk of memory loss later in life. “Overeating fills the brain with free radicals,” says Prof Goodwin. “There are five areas of the world where people live longer and have the sharpest minds and the thing they have in common is they don’t overeat.”
One of these places is Okinawa, a remote Japanese island, where a popular mantra is hara hachi bu, which translates as “Eat until you’re 80 per cent full”.
Talking: Human brains are hard wired to socialise; Prof Goodwin says social isolation is as bad for your brain as smoking or drinking too much alcohol. Research by the late American professor John T. Cacioppo found isolation even decreases the effectiveness of sleep, which leads to brain wear and tear. Any and every social activity helps.
Sex: In news, he says, that makes people sit up at dinner parties and take notice, Prof Goodwin found frequent sex is very anti-ageing for a midlife brain, which releases the hormones dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin during orgasm.
Learning: Prof Goodwin says while there’s a widespread belief sudoku and brain games keep the brain young, there’s little evidence they actually do. “What there is evidence for is that things like dancing, learning a language, playing a new card game or learning to juggle helps. Anything that involves concentration of effort over a period of time.”
If you want to dig deeper, Prof Goodwin's new book - Supercharge Your Brain - explains that while the brain is our most vital organ, few of us understand how to keep it healthy, in the way we know how to anti-age our bones or hearts.