Want to anti–age your brain? Hug your husband! Or ditch your phone and eat posh chocolate, says an acclaimed book
- It’s never been more important to keep our brains fit and healthy
- A study has shown that Alzheimer’s disease hits women hardest
- Dr Jenny Brockis offers eight tips to keep our grey matter in peak condition
From forgetting where you left your house keys to not remembering where you parked the car – memory slips affect us all from time to time.
But a study has revealed that Alzheimer’s disease hits women hardest, with memory and cognitive ability more severely impaired than in men at the same stage of the illness.
We all live longer, suffer more stress and can expect to work well into our seventh decade, so it’s never been more important to keep our brains fit and healthy beyond middle age.
When we greet each other through some form of physical contact, the brain releases oxytocin, the so-called trust hormone. U.S. neuroscientist Paul Zak has found that eight hugs a day are all it takes to feel the benefits – so get cuddling
COFFEE MAKES YOU CLEVER
We drink a cup or three a day to keep us alert, but does it actually improve our mental performance? When it comes to learning and forming long-term memories, the short answer is ‘Yes’.
A study published in 2014 in the journal Nature Neuroscience showed that timing is everything.
Drinking a coffee (or tea) after learning something enhances memory consolidation. So having that daily latte in the hour after doing a crossword or going to a work seminar is the best way to make sure the new information sticks.
But beware: too high a dose of caffeine will have the opposite effect, disrupting working memory performance by over-stimulating the brain, leading to cognitive exhaustion.
Stick to a maximum intake of 400 mg a day, or roughly four cups.
UNDERSTAND YOUR BODY’S RHYTHM
When I was a GP, I always found that 4pm was my lowest energy point of the day. If I didn’t get a cup of tea and a five-minute break around then, my level of focus and mental efficiency rapidly dropped off, which wasn’t great for those patients scheduled later in the day.
The principle behind the ‘ultradian rhythm’ by which our brains operate is similar. Whatever our daily schedule, our brains are designed to work best in chunks of time, following the natural peaks and troughs of our energy levels.
This recurrent cycle of roughly 90 minutes, our ultradian rhythm, takes us through different levels of alertness and focus.
Each cycle contains a peak of high performance lasting about 20 minutes, followed by 20 minutes of recovery time.
The key is to work with your brain‘s natural design.
Pacing your day in blocks of focused thinking means you operate efficiently, remain alert and attentive, and maximise that brain power.
Studies have shown that multitasking can reduce performance and productivity by 40 per cent. So here’s the secret to improved brain power: monotask. Do one thing at a time and give it your undivided attention
Multi-tasking is actually a physiological impossibility. We can’t do it – not if we’re female, not if we’re young, not at all.
If our brain is given two things to focus on at the same time, it will merely alternate our attention between them very quickly.
This gives the illusion of multi-tasking, when, in fact, we’re just giving half our attention to each task – and probably messing up both of them.
Studies have shown that multitasking can reduce performance and productivity by 40 per cent. So here’s the secret to improved brain power: monotask.
Do one thing at a time and give it your undivided attention. Exercise your ability to concentrate on something, and you get better at it.
The management guru Peter Cook recommends identifying three – and only three – priority tasks for each day. Focus and work on these, one by one, until they’re done properly.
The number of people under the age of 65 in the UK that have dementia
TURN OFF YOUR SMARTPHONE
Is modern technology really bad for our brains? As far as it affects our ability to pay attention to other people, the answer is yes.
Few would prefer to go back to a world before mobile phones and the internet, but we have paid for these modern conveniences with a vastly reduced attention span.
There’s a dark side to the smartphones so many of us are glued to.
We use these tools to pack our every waking moment with endless games, music, email and Facebook updates.
Some scientists think this is compromising our ability to connect with other people. According to one survey, 62 per cent of women and 48 per cent of men even admit to checking their phones during sex!
Others believe it’s eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention.
The U.S. psychiatrist Edward Hallowell believes that many people are suffering a psychological condition called Attention Deficit Trait (ADT).
This is a similar phenomenon to Attention Deficit Disorder, except ADT is purely the result of the tech-heavy environment we’ve created for ourselves.
One of the common traits of those who live longest while remaining staying sharp mentally is a sustained curiosity about the world around them. If map-reading feels like a serious intellectual challenge, it’s almost certainly doing you good. Put down the satnav and pull out a paper map instead
None of this is good for the brain.
When faced with a time gap in the day, make the conscious decision to unplug from social media.
Pause, look around and really listen to other people.
THE POWER OF A CUDDLE
The Inuit greet each other by rubbing noses. The Brits love to shake hands. Europeans kiss cheeks – twice or even three times.
When we greet each other through some form of physical contact, the brain releases oxytocin, the so-called trust hormone (it’s also released during orgasm, but I’m not advocating that in a social setting).
Oxytocin does lots of good things, including reducing cortisol levels and lowering blood pressure, fighting depression and boosting empathy. Studies have shown that it improves our memory for faces, and that its presence in the brain helps us make new friends.
U.S. neuroscientist Paul Zak has found that eight hugs a day are all it takes to feel the benefits – so get cuddling.
If you are not a hugging type of person, a gentle touch on another person’s arm works, as does having a massage or snuggling up on the sofa with your partner.
Dump the junk food and try to eat colourfully for a healthy brain. Go for leafy greens and deeply pigmented blue or red fruits, such as blueberries, cherries, plums and strawberries
IGNORE THE SATNAV
We reach our cognitive peak in our early 20s – our brains actually shrink by about 2 per cent per decade after that.
But that doesn’t mean you have to accept a downward slide in performance. The brain has a lifelong ability to form new connections, or synapses, between existing neurons.
Though we have more neuroplasticity in childhood, we never completely lose the ability to modify and strengthen our brain power. The best way to do it? Learn something new.
Watch that David Attenborough series, read that Stephen Hawking book, and only use satnavs if you have to.
One of the common traits of those who live longest while remaining staying sharp mentally is a sustained curiosity about the world around them.
If map-reading feels like a serious intellectual challenge, it’s almost certainly doing you good.
DITCH JUNK FOOD FOR COLOURFUL VEG
Though the brain constitutes just 2 per cent of our body mass, it consumes 20 per cent of our daily energy.
Not so surprising when you consider we make an estimated 30,000 decisions a day.
Re-fuelling in the right way is critical to brain performance, and that means eating well.
Prescriptive, faddy diets that exclude certain foods altogether aren’t the way forward.
But reducing sugar and bad fats known as transfats – those found in margarines, fast foods, biscuits, pies and frozen pizza – will help make your brain healthier.
Dump the junk food and try to eat colourfully.
Go for leafy greens and deeply pigmented blue or red fruits, such as blueberries, cherries, plums and strawberries.
Buy dark chocolate with a minimum of 70 per cent cocoa solids – it’s quality that counts, not quantity.
Eat three portions a week of an oily fish such as red or pink salmon, herring, mackerel or sardines, which are high in omega-3 and associated with a lower risk of depression and cognitive decline.
Go for fresh, minimally processed foods (wholegrain rather than white bread; raw nuts and seeds rather than sugar-packed cereal bars) and you’re on the right track.
GET IN WITH THE IN-CROWD
When we meet someone for the first time, our brain determines in the first fifth of a second whether they are friend or foe. We form groups all the time – it’s the principle on which much of reality TV works.
We like to watch people like us as they dream of becoming a pop star, making it as a top chef or winning the jackpot.
Your tribe – your friends and the people you feel safe with -matter a lot to your mental health. If you’re cut off from other people, your brain suffers.
A 2003 study showed that the social pain of exclusion hurts as much as physical pain, because they share common neural pathways – and yet we don’t take loneliness nearly as seriously as injury or disease.
You’d rush to hospital with a friend who’d broken a leg, but if they’re getting over a divorce, you might just tell them to pull themselves together.
Whether through choice or circumstance, loneliness impacts cognition. A lonely person’s brain is on permanent guard duty, hyper-alert to threats from the outside world and focused on watching for foe, not friend.
When we feel lonely, our stress hormones are elevated, our sleep is disturbed and negative perceptions of any single event or experience are magnified.
So get into the habit of accepting social invitations and try to find common ground with work colleagues.
We’ve evolved to need other people – it is thought that the human forebrain is particularly large in order to deal with the complexity of social networks.
To stay healthy in the modern world, we need to indulge our gregarious, friend-seeking brains.
Though the brain constitutes just 2 per cent of our body mass, it consumes 20 per cent of our daily energy. Not so surprising when you consider we make an estimated 30,000 decisions a day
HOW TO REALLY USE YOUR HEAD
It has long been popular to divide ourselves into left brain people and right brain people. You’re logical, scientific and good at maths (left brain), or insightful, emotional and good at art (right brain).
But there’s no scientific basis for this. We all use our whole brain to think.
What we can do is improve our mental flexibility to alternate better between the two halves of the brain – and boost its power overall.
Try this test from an academic study into the way individuals solve problems.
Look at the three words below and come up with a single word you can add to all of them to form a compound word or two-word phrase.
You have 30 seconds to get the correct answer.
HAT, CHOCOLATE, TOOL*
If you applied logic and analysis, you may have tried a couple of different possibilities before settling on the one word that fitted best. This is left brain dominance. If the answer came to you immediately and seemed obvious, you were using insight. That’s right brain dominance.
They keep you focused on solutions and open to the possibility of exploring all options and alternatives to get an answer.
* The answer is ‘box’: Hatbox; chocolate box; toolbox.
Adapted by Alison Roberts.
Future Brain by Dr Jenny Brockis (Wrightbooks, £14.95). To order a copy for £11.21 (25 per cent discount) call 0844 571 0640 or visit www.mailbookshop.co.uk. P&P free on orders over £12 for a limited time only. Offer valid until May 16, 2016.
This article originally appeared in Mail Online