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Thursday 31 May 2018 10:50am

Growing older doesn’t just affect our bodies, it also changes our brains. A lot of this change is for the better, allowing the brain to become more efficient and effective at taking on everyday life, but some changes put our brains at risk of degeneration. We can’t stop ourselves from ageing, but we can affect how ageing changes our brains. During his Brain Week talk ‘How to Optimise Brain Health’, Dr Damian Scarf laid out what the research tells us about keeping our brains healthy as we age.

The most obvious steps you can take to keep your brain healthy are a good diet and consistent exercise. A general rule of thumb is that what is good for your heart is good for your brain. This doesn’t mean we all need to go on extreme diets, or go out and run marathons, but it does mean that we should be mindful of what we do with our bodies. A Mediterranean diet, for example, has been linked to reduced shrinkage of the brain with age, while an extra serving of leafy green veggies each day could save you 11 years of brain health. Exercise can have a similar effect; not only does consistent exercise lower your risk of falls but it can also strengthen your hippocampus, the part of your brain that is damaged by dementia. “What you’re taking in and what you’re putting out can have a big effect on your future self,” Damian says.

Diet and exercise are all well and good, but there is more to being healthy than having a healthy body. We’re social animals and, no matter how introverted you might feel, you need social contact in order to be healthy. “Social relationships,” Damian says, “have the most powerful impact on the ageing brain than any other factor.” A good social life isn’t an excuse to eat poorly or avoid exercise, although it does have a stronger effect on ageing than both of them combined. Having a sense of belonging, and meaningful social contact is crucial for the health of your brain.

There is no magic bullet for ageing well. For now all we have are clues about what the brain needs to stay in the best shape for as long as it can. The more of these factors you have on your side the better. So, stay active, eat well, and keep in contact with your loved ones; your brain will thank you for it.