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Easy ways to stay mentally sharp

Two of the most frightening myths around ageing and mental agility are that any decline is just part of getting older and that there’s nothing you can do to reduce the risk of conditions like dementia. In fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Relatively few of us will be affected by dementia – according to Dementia Australia, just one in 10 people aged 65 to 851. And, while the incidence does increase with age, for people over 85, while three in 10 have dementia, there are seven of that 10 who don’t. Even mild cognitive decline – so-called ‘senior moments’ – is no longer considered an inevitable part of ageing. The brain is capable of producing new brain cells at any age2, and new research suggests that, in healthy older adults, there is little to no deterioration3.

A different study showed that a healthy lifestyle can significantly reduce the risk of dementia4, even in people with a high genetic risk5. Here are five scientifically supported changes you can make to take care of your brain.

1. Make brain-smart food choices

Research has shown that choosing to eat more of some foods and less of others could reduce the risk of dementia6. Those to avoid include anything containing saturated or trans fats, such as fatty and processed meats; some deep-fried take-away foods; and manufactured and packaged foods such as cakes, biscuits, pastries and pies7. Those to enjoy include foods containing ‘good’ fats, such as olive oil, oily fish, avocados and nuts8.

There’s also evidence that a balanced diet, such as the one outlined by the National Dietary Guidelines9, can provide the range of nutrients the brain needs to function well. This way of eating could be doubly effective, as it also protects against conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes that are risk factors for dementia10.

2. Lower the pressure

Approximately 20% of the blood pumped by the heart flows to the brain11. Two thirds of that energy helps nerve cells send signals, the rest is used to maintain the health of the cells12.

As uncontrolled high blood pressure, or hypertension, affects the blood flow to all your organs, including the brain, keeping your blood pressure within a healthy range is thought to be one of the most protective things you can do13. Adopting a healthy lifestyle and, where appropriate, medication, can reduce your risk. Research suggests that conditions such as high blood sugar and high cholesterol can also cause damage to your blood vessels14. Again, good management can reduce the risk, so it’s important to have regular health checks and follow medical advice.

3. You’ve got to move it, move it

Being physically active is very good for your blood vessels, including those in the brain15

Aerobic exercise is most effective – anything that makes you breathe faster and increases your heart rate. That doesn’t mean you have to work out at the gym or start training for a triathlon. A regular habit of walking briskly for half an hour can make a big difference16, and any physical activity is better than none17. Once again, the benefits are cumulative. And just like eating well, exercise can reduce the risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

4. Give your mind a workout

Researchers believe that exercising your mind provides another protective factor16.

Recommendations range from crosswords and Sudoku puzzles to learning an instrument or another language, though it seems that challenging your brain with new activities is most likely to keep it functioning well15. New and complex activities could encourage the formation of new brain cells, as well as strengthen the connections between them. According to scientists, this could make the brain more resilient when cells are damaged or die17.

Take time to reflect

Learning to live without a parent – someone you’ve known and loved your whole life – can be very difficult, and the sense of loss their death brings may take a long time to subside. It’s important you allow yourself time to grieve and connect with family and friends to share memories as you settle their affairs and plan for the future.

5. Enjoy a sociable life

Having regular interactions with a circle of friends, family and acquaintances whose company you enjoy can also protect against dementia – in part because this is another way of exercising your brain16. And, while conversation itself can be stimulating, you could boost the effect by getting together for mind-testing games such as trivia or bridge15.

Being with other people can also make physical activity more enjoyable and, again, activities such as walking groups, team sports or dance classes can provide multiple benefits16.

Take time to reflect

Learning to live without a parent – someone you’ve known and loved your whole life – can be very difficult, and the sense of loss their death brings may take a long time to subside. It’s important you allow yourself time to grieve and connect with family and friends to share memories as you settle their affairs and plan for the future.

Protect your future along with your brain

There is a great deal you can do to reduce the risk of dementia but, as with most aspects of life, there are no guarantees. It makes sense, then, to appoint someone you trust to make decisions about your property or finances if, for any reason, you lose the mental capacity to manage your own affairs. This doesn’t have to be a family member but it should be someone who understands your wishes well enough to make the kinds of decisions you would make for yourself.

Take time to reflect

Learning to live without a parent – someone you’ve known and loved your whole life – can be very difficult, and the sense of loss their death brings may take a long time to subside. It’s important you allow yourself time to grieve and connect with family and friends to share memories as you settle their affairs and plan for the future.

1 https://www.dementia.org.au/statistics
2 https://www.helpguide.org/articles/alzheimers-dementia-aging/age-related-memory-loss.htm
3 https://www.dementia.org.au/research/news/read/research-shows-age-plays-limited-role-cognitive-decline
4 https://www.sciencemediacentre.org/expert-reaction-to-study-looking-at-lifestyle-genetic-risk-and-dementia/ 
5 https://www.neurologylive.com/conferences/aaic-2019/elzbieta-kuzma-phd-healthy-lifestyle-reduces-dementia-risk-even-with-high-genetic-risk
6 https://yourbrainmatters.org.au/5-simple-steps/step-4-follow-a-healthy-diet
7 https://daa.asn.au/smart-eating-for-you/smart-eating-fast-facts/nourishing-nutrients/where-do-i-find-saturated-fats-in-food/ 
https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/healthy-eating/food-and-nutrition/fats-and-cholesterol/monounsaturated-and-polyunsaturated-omega-3-and-omega-6-fats
9 https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/sites/default/files/content/n55_australian_dietary_guidelines.pdf
10 https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/guidelines/about-australian-dietary-guidelines
11 https://www.disabled-world.com/health/neurology/brain/bfa.php
12 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-does-the-brain-need-s/
13 https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/high-blood-pressure-hypertension
14 http://www.bloodpressureuk.org/BloodPressureandykou/Yourbody/Dementia
15 https://www.abc.net.au/news/health/2017-05-03/dementia-and-what-you-can-do-to-cut-your-risk/8490676
16 https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/risk-factors-and-prevention/how-reduce-your-risk-dementia
17 https://yourbrainmatters.org.au/5-simple-steps

General advice and information only

Any advice and information on this website is general only, and has been prepared without taking into account your particular circumstances and needs. Before acting on any advice on this website you should assess or seek advice on whether it is appropriate for your needs, financial situation and investment objectives.