CHAMPION STRATEGIES – PUBLIC SPEAKING WORKSHOP – November 7, 2021
How to maintain a healthy brain
The good news is that certain cognitive skills do not decline drastically with age: your vocabulary and language ability are likely to remain relatively intact (aside from more ‘tip of the tongue’ moments probably related to our slowed processing speed). Likewise, your visuospatial skills will probably survive well with ageing. These enable you to know where you are in relation to other things in our environment – handy when you are driving! Increasing wisdom and experience can also offset a number of the age-related deficits – leading to better decision-making.
What’s more, you don’t have to passively accept any ageing-related changes. Until fairly recently, it was considered that once the brain had matured – by your mid-20s – that was it, all downhill from there. We now know this is not true. Mounting research suggests that, in certain brain structures, humans continue to grow new nerve cells throughout life. One of these, the hippocampus, is critical for encoding new memories, and is an early site of damage in Alzheimer’s disease. The ability to promote this growth, to exploit the brain’s ‘neuroplasticity’ (ie, its sustained ability to adapt to the demands placed on it), presents an important and optimistic opportunity. It means that there are lifestyle changes you can adopt, which I’ll outline shortly, that will help you maintain your general brain fitness and function, even as you grow older.
The roots of dementia run deep
Compared with normal ageing, dementia reflects a far more serious impairment of function. It gets worse with time and, as the disease underpinning it spreads throughout the brain, more cognitive skills will become affected. It is worth mentioning here that dementia is not a diagnosis itself; it is just a term we use to describe a set of symptoms and signs that signify a problem with cognition that is becoming progressively worse. Alzheimer’s disease is the most well-known and frequent cause, but vascular disease (that of the heart and blood vessels) can also cause dementia; frontotemporal dementia, and Lewy body dementia are other common variants.
One of the challenges with tackling dementia is that it is predominantly a condition that manifests in the elderly, yet its roots are very deep. In fact, we now know that one of the toxic proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease can start to appear in the brain decades before symptoms appear. Likewise, vascular problems, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, can develop many years before the illness becomes evident.
This highlights the importance – and, on a positive note, the opportunity – of addressing risk factors well before the symptoms of dementia become apparent. Bear in mind an important and under-recognised point – dementia might well be preventable, or at least delayable. A report in 2020 commissioned for the leading medical journal The Lancet concluded that up to 40 per cent of cases of dementia worldwide could theoretically be avoided by addressing a number of modifiable risk factors throughout life.
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This is easier said than done – as anyone who has tried to sustain good habits and abstain from bad habits over the long term knows, keeping motivated can be difficult. This is especially the case when there is often an immediate reward for the bad habit (eg, the sugar rush with eating sweetened foods). We are geared toward such rewards – they are steeped in our ancestral history when the threat was scarcity. The current threat in the modern Western world, however, is not scarcity, but abundance. Never before have we had such easy access to things that are harmful to our brain, chief among them: sugar, saturated fat, and salt. The combination of their ubiquity and our hard-wired desire for them is a real problem.
Nonetheless, despite these challenges, the fact remains that there are things you can do to protect your brain from dementia. What’s more, these activities also promise immediate rewards of their own – both in terms of improved cognitive function and better general wellbeing. In fact, to protect your brain health for the future and to optimise your brain function in the here and now, you should be addressing the same things, and in this Guide I will show you how.