It's not generally until our later years that most of us start considering brain health, but the earlier you start focusing on its fitness the better. Fortunately, at any age it's possible to keep stretching the brain and grow new neural connections.
Exercising your mind can involve anything from doing puzzles to learning a new language, memorising poetry, or taking dancing lessons. Whatever you choose, there are some basic principles to follow. First of all, don't begin at the hardest level – it's exactly like physical exercise: start small and gradually increase the demands on the brain. There should be enough mental effort to stretch your brain but not over-strain it.
Second, for a real benefit, you need to put in sustained effort – so do puzzles like Sudoku or crosswords for 15-20 minutes, four or five times a week.
Daily mental workouts can improve your speed of thought, focus, navigation and listening skills as well as memory.
US neuroscientist Michael Merzenich reckons that with the right training you can have the brain of an untrained 50-year-old when you're in your eighties. He has helped develop a range of exercises that research has demonstrated can make people faster, more alert and better able to perform everyday tasks, and they continue to show these improvements even 10 years down the track (for more info go to brainhq.com).
However, you don't have to sign up to a brain training programme; anything that keeps you challenged and learning new things will do – so long as it's fun and makes you happy. Because being sad isn't good for the brain. We know that severe and persistent depression can actually damage it, causing some parts to shrink and affect memory and concentration.
A smart brain is a healthy brain
Boosting happiness and reducing stress is only going to be good for your brain. Meditation is especially helpful – neuroscientists have found evidence that not only does it control stress but it improves mental focus and even increases the volume of grey matter in the hippocampus, an area of the brain that's involved in learning and memory.
US neuroscientist and longevity expert Gary Small believes one of the best things you can do for your brain health is go for a brisk walk with a good friend.
Gary, author of several books including 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain, says this gives triple benefits. You get interesting conversation to stimulate your mind, it lowers stress levels and it also provides some physical activity which is vital for a healthy brain.
In general, anything that is good for your heart is excellent for your brain. But aerobic exercise is particularly important. It releases hormones that contribute to the growth of brain cells and helps stimulate new connections – it's even been described as a first-aid kit for damaged brain cells. Activities like Zumba, which combine coordination with cardio, are ideal.
"Even just walking briskly for 20 minutes a day pumps nutrients and oxygen to your brain cells," says Gary.
Feeding your brain the right food
The brain is a hungry organ and needs nutrients. It consumes about a third of the body's calories and would much prefer it if you only ate a healthy diet.
"Oxidative stress causes wear and tear on the brain cells," explains Gary. "So it needs lots of antioxidants from colourful fruits and vegetables, and leafy greens."
Gary advises enjoying plenty of foods high in ORAC units (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity). These include cranberries, prunes, plums and pomegranates – just drinking a glass of pomegranate juice a day has been shown to improve memory.
"Then you need to make sure you get enough omega-3 fats which are anti-inflammatory and protect the brain. Find them in oily fish, nuts and flaxseed," he says.
Daily consumption of curcumin – the compound that gives turmeric its yellow colour – has also been shown to boost memory and attention, and it's believed it does this by blocking inflammation. A common ingredient in curry, turmeric has been described as India's shield against Alzheimer's, and recently Gary completed some encouraging research using curcumin supplements.
Happily, your morning flat white might be helping your brain, too – coffee beans are full of beneficial antioxidants and moderate consumption of caffeine seems to prevent inflammation.
Gary advises on minimising added sugar and highly processed foods in the diet, and not overdoing portion size because being overweight in midlife, or developing type 2 diabetes, hugely increases the risk of developing dementia later on.
Future proofing your brain
By the age of 45 the average person has worse memory compared to 20 years earlier. By our sixties we're really starting to slip. And at 85 around half of us will be showing the signs of dementia. Our genes certainly play a part in this but we have more control over our brains that we think, promises Gary, and we can all be doing simple things every day to keep them working well.
Balance is the key – so if you have a mentally challenging but sedentary job you're better to use your free time to get some physical exercise. If you work alone it's important to make time for social connection. When life is stressful, relaxation techniques might be the priority. And if you're on the go all the time you need a sit-down with a puzzle book and a cup of tea – just opt for white or green teas as they have up to 10 times more antioxidant power than ordinary black tea.
Future-proofing the brain is yet another reason to give up smoking, keep an eye on your blood pressure and cholesterol levels and ensure you're getting adequate vitamin D.
"My motto is it's never too early or too young to start protecting brain health," says Gary. "The sooner you begin the easier it is to get used to a healthy brain lifestyle."