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Think Young

HOW YOUR BRAIN CAN STOP YOU AGEING

According to the often unflattering stereotypes of those who are getting on in years, it’s not just the rocking chair and the bedsocks that loom large; it’s also the image of living in the past on a planet inhabited by fabric handkerchiefs, brown paper bags and Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells – not that there isn’t a lot to be said for Tunbridge Wells.

The stereotypes of the middle-aged person who disapproves of everything that post-dates loose tea, or of the old person who can remember everything about the day war broke out but apparently nothing about today’s hospital appointment, are ill-natured but not always totally without foundation.
So:

if retaining your independence is important to you if you take pleasure in the company of young people and would like to keep them around you if you don’t want to be thought of as a fossil incapable of taking decisions if, above all, you don’t want to be stereotyped

giving some thought to the health and elasticity of your brain has to be one of your priorities.

Yet again, it’s use it or lose it

Muscles aren’t the only things that weaken if not exercised. Brains also need to be exercised and there’s nothing like novelty and challenge for keeping them sharp and youthful. While it’s true that we do lose brain cells as we age, the loss is minuscule compared with the number that remain. What is probably much more important is that, if we don’t use the connections between neurones (brain cells) that we forged throughout decades of learning, experiencing, coping with dilemmas and solving problems, these connections atrophy or are put to other uses. Insufficient mental activity means that the capacity of the brain to learn and remember is gradually reduced.

Until very recently it was thought that brain cells could not be replaced, that new brain cells could not be created. However, in the past decade studies have consistently shown that this is not so and that what stimulates the creation of new brain cells is mental exercise and, to some people’s surprise, physical exercise. And this happens at all ages, which is a profoundly encouraging thought.

Learning is one of the most potent forms of mental stimulation and the subject is immaterial for our purposes. Any mind that is regularly taken up with assimilating new knowledge – with all that entails in the way of making the effort to understand, of comparing and evaluating unfamiliar material, of testing it against what is already known – is unlikely to be a mind that has to struggle to keep its bearings.

Learning isn’t just the preserve of the young
No matter what your age, following any subject with keen interest is a form of learning. Being open to learning is simply a frame of mind: it’s reading anything you can find on child development when you discover that you’re going to be a grandparent; it’s actively looking for a follow-up in today’s newspaper on something that caught your eye in yesterday’s; it’s seeking out information on food values when you decide to go on a diet. In short, it’s taking active steps to keep in touch with what’s going on around you and to expand your mind rather than let it rust. Remember, it doesn’t matter what your interest is – ballroom dancing, Chinese cookery, motorsport, party politics, bonsai, Egyptology or conserving hedgehogs – it’s the enthusiasm you bring to it and your willingness to learn about it that will keep your mind well-oiled and working smoothly.

The new knowledge that scientific research is uncovering in relation to the working of the brain shows that if you want to maintain mental fitness you should think of your brain as a muscle that needs exercising and stretching regularly.
Yet again, it’s physical exercise

It would be hard to find anything that kills as many birds with one stone as regular physical activity, exercise. Now we know that as well as keeping your heart elastic, lowering your blood pressure, controlling your appetite, banishing cravings, protecting you against osteoporosis, increasing the oxygen supply to all your cells, improving your balance, combating depression and anxiety, reducing the risk of colon and breast cancer, lowering cholesterol, calming irritable bowel syndrome, giving you a good night’s sleep, increasing your mobility and stamina and reshaping your body, exercise actually causes neurogenesis, the creation of new brain cells. What’s more, this activity takes place in the area of the brain which is the seat of learning and memory.

The kind of physical activity that benefits your brain, as well as your heart, lungs and arteries, is aerobic exercise, the word ‘aerobic’ meaning ‘with oxygen’. This kind of exercise, if done regularly, increases the efficiency with which your body can deliver oxygen to your muscles and how much oxygen your muscles can burn for energy. No, you don’t have to join an aerobics class, though why not, if you fancy it and your doctor says you’re fit enough for beginners’ sessions? Exercise is aerobic if it raises your heart rate until you are slightly breathless, and so continuous brisk walking for
30 minutes three times a week is fine. Begin gently and build up to this if you haven’t exercised for some time.
Construct your own anti-Alzheimer’s regime

Keeping your brain young means exercising your mind and body and the variations on that theme are endless. Each of us can pick and choose to come up with a regime that is built around our own rhythms and inclinations. All of the following activities provide good brain exercise: crosswords, competitive card games, draughts, chess, backgammon, any other game that depends on strategy, any kind of puzzle, map-reading, all kinds of measurement – for baking, for decorating, for dressmaking, for construction, etc – following complicated instructions, model-making, keeping detailed accounts, reading any kind of taxing material, and so on, and so on.

Put aside a time in your week that you devote to learning something new; that’s the perfect form of brain exercise. Learning a new language is an elixir of youth for your brain but, if that feels too daunting, adult education classes offer an immense variety of subjects taught at different levels. If you prefer it, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t learn on your own. Ferreting out books and learning materials is a project in itself and, with a helpful librarian and access to the internet (also available at your library), the field is yours to play. Whether it’s researching plants for your windswept dustbowl of a garden, an introduction to astronomy, plumbing the mysteries of breeding goldfish or reconstructing your family tree, you can experience the satisfaction of finding out more about what interests you and help to keep your brain sharp enough to give you a lifetime of learning.

Managing your memory
By managing your memory, I mean actively seeking out ways of strengthening it and also employing a number of tactics to prevent it from letting you down. As we get older, our long-term memory gets clearer and it’s our short-term memory that may suffer.

MAINTAINING YOUR MEMORY MEANS PUTTING IT THROUGH ITS PACES

Each morning take three or four minutes to recount to yourself the people you saw the day before, their names, what they were wearing, what they were doing. If you didn’t go out or have company, do the same exercise but with the people you saw on TV or heard on the radio. When you make a shopping list, in the store collect as many items as you can remember before consulting your list. Play Kim’s Game with your grandchildren. That’s the game where you have a minute to look at a tray with 15-20 small objects on it; it’s then covered and each player has to name as many objects as she remembers. If you feel that you need the practice, have a go when you’re alone. After reading a newspaper article that interested you, imagine how you would summarise it if you wanted to tell someone about it. Recount it later to your partner or a friend. Make up your own memory exercises and practice them when you have a spare moment or a boring chore to do. Trying to remember the names of all the people in your class at school’s quite a good one and stirs up a host of other memories.

DEVELOP SOME TECHNIQUES TO HELP OUT WHEN YOUR STUCK

If you don’t know where you’ve put something, write down the last six things you did before losing it and where you were for each activity – draw a grid on a piece of paper with what you did along one side and where you were along the bottom. Check out each of those squares; the object you’ve lost must be in one of them. If you need to remember several things, try using a mnemonic. If today you have to collect a prescription, water your wilting seedlings, make an appointment with the vet, you can abbreviate what you must remember to a single word: p, prescription, w, water, a, appointment. Rearrange the letters to make paw. Hang on to the word and it will act as a memory aid. If you get to the top of the stairs and can’t remember why you came, in your mind trace back through your movements (and, if possible, the thoughts that went with them) before you started to mount the stairs. There’s something you’re afraid of forgetting in the morning, put it where you can’t possibly get out of the door without falling over it or stick a post-it with its name on it over the keyhole of the front door.

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