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Remember how you were once the star of the Trivial Pursuit team, the person everyone turned to when answers were needed. Now, as the years pass, you struggle to remember the name of your cousin, your school, the simplest of things. Memory loss is one of the scariest prospects of getting older. And it’s inevitable. Or is it? In a comprehensive, long-term study, scientists have identified ways you can work towards maintaining a sharp mind into the future.

First it is necessary to define successful ageing. According to Dr Séverine Sabia of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, who conducted a 16-year study in collaboration with English and French researchers, successful ageing is defined as ‘maintaining the ability to function well with good mobility, cognitive skills, respiratory function, mental health and no chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, stroke or disability at the age of 60 years or older’.

The study, which was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology and the Canadian Medical Association Journal, investigated the health-related habits – tobacco and alcohol use, physical activity and the consumption of fruit and vegetables – of 5,100 men and women. During the study period, information was collected in early midlife (average age of 44), midlife (average age of 56) and late midlife (average age of 61).

In all age groups, people who had three or four bad habits faced an 84-plus percent increased risk of scoring poorly on mental functioning tests than their healthier counterparts. The people who lived unhealthily for a longer period were twice as likely to develop memory loss and three times more likely to experience poor brain functioning. Interestingly, avoiding alcohol is not the answer – people who consumed five to 14 units of alcohol a week performed better in brain and memory tests than those who drank no alcohol at all.

Collating the results, the scientists compiled the following guidelines on how best to delay or ward off age-related loss of brain function:

Eating fruits and vegetables

Bump up your intake of organic fruit and veggies. If you’re concerned about the price of organic produce, buy locally grown fruits and veggies in season, when they’re at their most affordable. Seeds are good too. Try our recipe for Pumpkin Seed and Coriander Pesto, filled with zinc, a mineral that is essential for brain health.

Get moving

 
Physical fitness and mental fitness go hand in hand. People who exercise regularly also tend to stay mentally sharp in their 70s and 80s. Exercise is good for the lungs (older people who remember clearly and have alert brains characteristically have good lung function); helps reduce the risk for diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and stroke – illnesses that can lead to memory loss; and increases the level of neurotrophins, substances that nourish brain cells and help protect them against damage from stroke and other injuries. Aim for two and a half hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (brisk walking, water aerobics, dancing and general gardening), or an hour and 15 minutes of vigorous exercise (walking briskly, jogging or running, swimming laps or hiking uphill)a week. If you prefer, you can break your exercise sessions into blocks of just 10 minutes apiece.

Drink responsibly

The study suggests that moderate drinking could help your brain to function better when you’re older. Bear in mind, though, that other studies have found alcohol to be a risk factor for certain types of cancer, particularly breast cancer.

Quit smoking

Yes, that old chestnut. Smoking is no good for your health. Giving up is difficult, so it’s worth getting help. People who stop smoking before the age of 50 cut their risk of dying in the next 15 years in half, compared with those who keep smoking.

Other studies have linked the following factors with good mental functioning in old age:

Keep mentally active

Challenging your brain will keep it firing on all cylinders.
Attend adult education classes, read or learn a new skill such as ballroom dancing or painting.

Get a good night’s sleep

People vary widely in their sleep needs, but research indicates that six to eight hours of zzzz’s a night are ideal. Of course, the quality of sleep is paramount. And as we age, many people are affected by insomnia. Try to go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning. Plan to do your most vigorous exercise early in the day. Avoid coffee and other sources of caffeine after mid-morning as its buzz can keep you awake for hours afterward (drink warm milk, chamomile or rooibos tea at bedtime instead). Avoid sleeping pills if you can – they have been linked with memory loss. If your sleep problems persist, consult your medical practitioner to find out what’s wrong and get treatment if needed.

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Acknowledgements & Photo credits

1. Photo courtesy of / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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