Does brain health make a difference?
The human brain is incredible; it contains around 100 billion nerve cells and controls every aspect of us, rather like the Central Processing Unit of a computer. Thinking is important but the brain is in charge of so much more; it stores our precious memories and interprets the images from our eyes so that we understand what we’re seeing, plus thousands of other amazing things that makes us so unique. The old adage ‘use it or lose it’ is also true for our brains although there is varying advice on what gets the best results, however, we need to keep brain active if we’re going to maintain good brain health for the rest of our lives.
As we age, our brains naturally change, just like most other parts of our bodies. As our joints and muscles begin to ache and we tire more easily so does our brain feel the effects of ageing. Many people would agree that as they age their brain doesn’t seem to recall facts as quickly as they used to, or words seem to ‘fall out’ of our brain and we end up substituting them with ‘thingummy’ or ‘whatsit’. This is a normal sign of ageing in most cases and unless it is becoming a real concern, it shouldn’t be seen as anything out of the ordinary.
Cognitive impairment and brain health
Maintaining good brain health is vital as we age and just as we are advised to keep a balance in other areas of our lives, it is the same for our brain. Overworking has been suggested as no better than underusing our brains in certain circumstances and a long-term study by the UCL found that consistently working longer hours could have an eventual negative impact on cognitive function. Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) is, according to the NHS, the term used to describe minor thinking and memory problems, such as:
- memory loss
- difficulty concentrating
- problems with planning and reasoning
but MCI does not in itself always cause dementia. In fact, with medication and support for any underlying condition, symptoms of MCI may go away altogether.
Dementia and brain health
Dementia is not a single disease, in fact there are over 100 different types of dementias that can cause symptoms, although the most common is Alzheimer’s. While maintaining a healthy lifestyle and stimulating cognitive function may help to prevent the onset of cognitive decline, if you are eventually diagnosed with dementia there are still things that can be done to live as well as possible.
Dementia is an individualised condition which means that no two people will likely have the same experience, so someone living with dementia should always be seen as that person still and never as just the dementia. As well as medications, there are activities that can be undertaken that may help someone to live well with dementia, these include:
- Cognitive rehabilitation – where a personal goal is introduced for an everyday task, so that the parts of the brain that are working can assist the parts that are not.
- Cognitive Stimulation Therapy – group activities that can help to improve memory, problem-solving skills and language ability.
- Reminiscence and life-story work – this involves compiling photos and keepsakes from significant events in your past, or listening to favourite music, to stimulate recollection and improve mood and wellbeing.
Healthy life, healthy brain
While we know that staying physically active is beneficial in all areas of our life, it can also be valuable when it comes to maintaining brain health. Studies show that people who remain physically active “have a lower-than-average risk of decline in thinking skills with ageing”. Getting a decent night’s sleep is also important, so enjoy an early night from time to time and make sure you’re getting the recommended amount of rest.
Additionally, it’s what we put in our bodies that helps too. Avoiding smoking, while eating a balanced diet rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and flavonoids has links to “maintaining thinking skills in older age”. Risk factors include being overweight, having high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, so maintaining a healthy weight and being physically fit can make all the difference.
Tips for stimulation
While there is not yet concrete evidence that ‘Brain Training’ computer games actually do what they claim to, says Age UK, it is certainly worth keeping your brain stimulated through activities that you enjoy, whether that be crosswords, salsa dancing or cooking.
It seems though that the highest levels of cognitive stimulation may come when we do new activities, especially where we learn new skills in a group environment, so-called ‘productive-engagement’. It seems then, to keep our brain in good health it’s important that we do things that we enjoy while occasionally trying new things, as well as staying as fit, active and healthy as possible.
Page reviewed by Deanna Lane, Senior Regional Clinical Lead on November 3, 2021