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Maintaining Mental Performance in Later Life

Here's how to keep your mind sharp in your 60s and beyond.

Older woman with sharp, piercing blue eyes.

For years, we’ve been told that our mental performance peaks in our 20s before commencing a slow, inexorable decline. Middle-aged people just don’t have the same psychological agility as their young adult children, the theory went.

Now, a convincing study upends that conventional wisdom. Researchers at Germany’s Heidelberg University tracked the mental performance of 1.2 million people, aged between 10 and 80. This large study found that mental performance does indeed rise during childhood and adolescence, before peaking in the mid-20s, as previously thought. But then instead of declining, mental performance in fact stays fairly constant throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s. It is only around age 60 that mental performance starts to drop off – but even then, it’s a much less dramatic fall than previously thought.

And even once you turn 60, mental decline is not inevitable. According to a professor of medical gerontology at Trinity College, Dublin, with 35 years experience, here's how can it be avoided...

Exercise: One surefire way to boost your brain health in later life is through exercise. We know that physical activity increases brain flow, which helps to wash toxins away from your brain. Exercise also releases a number of beneficial neurotransmitters and endorphins, like serotonin (known as the “happiness molecule”). All of these chemicals help our brain to concentrate and store memories.

When researchers scan volunteers’ brains before and after the introduction of regular exercise, we see parts of the brain growing in size. The hippocampus region, responsible for memory, expands.

Diet: Poor diet is linked strongly to weight gain and obesity, which causes chronic inflammation in the brain. Research suggests the best food for the brain comes from a Mediterranean diet of plant-based foods, including plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices.

Social Engagement: When trying to boost your brain health, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of human contact. Meeting friends (or even just enjoying time with strangers) is a de-stressing ritual, sending our levels of cortisol (known as the “stress hormone”) down. At the same time, our body increases production of “feel-good” hormones, giving you the same feeling you might get after going for a vigorous jog. These hormones help soothe inflammation in our brain.


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