Exercise away from busy roads
As we age, the brain starts to change. By the age of 60, the frontal lobe and hippocampus, areas involved in cognitive function and encoding new memories, start to shrink, as does the white matter, the bundles of nerves that carry signals between brain cells.
The brain also produces fewer chemical messengers, including the feel-good hormones dopamine and serotonin, which can hasten depression and cognitive decline. We’re also at growing risk of diseases of the brain, such as Alzheimer’s.
However, regular exercise is beneficial because it seems to work at a cellular level to increase the number of mitochondria (power houses) in brain cells.
‘But keep away from areas of high pollution if you want to get the health benefits,’ says Ian Mudway, a senior lecturer at the School of Public Health at Imperial College London.
Regular exercise is beneficial because it seems to work at a cellular level to increase the number of mitochondria (power houses) in brain cells. ‘But keep away from areas of high pollution if you want to get the health benefits,’ says Ian Mudway [File photo]
He points to a recent study in the journal Neurology which found going for a jog is good for the brain, but not if you do it in a polluted area.
It looked at data from 8,600 people, including their exposure to pollution — estimated according to where they lived — and how much exercise they did, and markers of brain health. Those who exercised in areas of high air pollution did not get the same benefits from their workouts.
One theory is that tiny, ‘nano’ particles of pollution are inhaled and then accumulate in the brain. ‘The second theory is that pollution leads to systemic inflammation throughout the body, which over time impacts the brain,’ says Ian Mudway. ‘In both cases, it is thought that particles cause oxidative stress, leading to damage to neurons or brain cells. When I exercise I make a point of avoiding busy roads and as I live in Central London, I run along the Thames path.’
Beware of open fires and woodburners
When it comes to brain health, it seems that exposure to a specific pollutant — magnetite nanoparticles — is particularly damaging, suggests Barbara Maher, a professor of environmental science at Lancaster University.
‘These are iron-rich particles formed by combustion or frictional heating from vehicle engines or brakes.’
Other ultra-fine pollutants from traffic fumes are also a hazard, as they are small enough to enter the brain.
However, magnetite is especially worrying as it is the catalyst for the formation of compounds that can lead to cell damage or cell death, adds Professor Maher.
In a study she published in 2016, Professor Maher found abundant magnetite nanoparticles in the brain tissue from residents of Mexico City and Manchester — both cities where people are exposed to traffic fumes, from woodburners and industrial pollution.
‘Our results indicate that magnetite nanoparticles in the atmosphere can enter the brain, where they might pose a risk to our health, including conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease,’ she wrote in the journal PNAS.
‘Having open fires in the home is not a good idea, even if your woodburner is well sealed, as you’re exporting hazardous particles into the atmosphere,’ she told Good Health. ‘Studies have found dementia rates are higher in countries where woodburning use is very common, and particularly high where you find both heavy traffic and heavy woodburner usage.’
When it comes to brain health, it seems that exposure to a specific pollutant — magnetite nanoparticles — is particularly damaging, suggests Barbara Maher, a professor of environmental science at Lancaster University
Blueberries are bursting with anti-ageing properties
Blueberries are like a fresh vitamin pill, bursting with anti-ageing properties, including better heart health and delayed cognitive ageing, says dietitian Jane Clarke, from nourishbyjaneclarke.com.
The colour is the key: this is from anthocyanin, an antioxidant that helps repair cellular damage. Buy frozen blueberries to add to smoothies.
Go on two-week mini diets
‘As we get older, the system that keeps everything working properly in cells becomes less efficient,’ explains Nicholas Ktistakis, a cell biologist at the Babraham Institute, a life sciences research institution in Cambridge.
‘Also, the mitochondria in cells can stop working properly, and start pumping out damaging molecules called free radicals.’ But you can help your cells clear out these molecules by fasting, which triggers autophagy — the body’s process of cleaning out old, damaged cells and producing new ones.
As Nicholas Ktistakis explains: ‘When we go into periods of fasting, we force the autophagy system to go into overdrive to break down parts of the cell to make energy. But this also starts to burn through all the detritus and eliminate bad things that make the cell less effective.
‘Some scientists who work in this area follow a 5:2 diet, where you fast for two days a week. Or for a similar effect, cut back to 40 per cent of what you normally eat for two weeks every once in a while. I try this two-week reduced intake every few months.’ Always take a sensible approach to dietary restriction and discuss this with your GP before starting any regimen.
Take blood pressure pills
‘There is one sort of medicine that can help keep dementia at bay and that is medication for high blood pressure because this will greatly reduce your chance of cognitive decline,’ says Gill Livingston, a professor of psychiatry of older people at University College London.
‘People with untreated high blood pressure are much more likely to have a stroke and are more at risk of cognitive decline because it puts you at risk of diseases which hasten this process.
‘They also show more thinning of the brain tissue itself, which reduces cognitive reserve — this is the ability of the brain to function well despite being damaged. That is why some people can have lots of damage and still function well, whereas others with relatively little damage have severe dementia.
‘This understanding informs my own clinical practice and we advise people who are referred to us with subjective or objective changes in memory but without dementia how to reduce their personal risks through, for example, keeping their own blood pressure under control.’
Eat red and yellow peppers
You may well have never heard of them, but keeping your glial cells healthy is important for a range of brain functions, says Tony Dickenson, a professor of neuroscience, physiology and pharmacology at University College London.
Glial cells are found throughout the nervous system and support the neurons, or nerve cells, including bringing nutrients and removing waste.
‘If glial cells become inflamed, they can release toxic chemicals which upset the normal working of neurons. Chronic inflammation in these cells has been linked to problems ranging from depression to dementia,’ says Professor Dickenson.
‘It’s not really understood why glial cells become inflamed, but there are dietary approaches to calm them down.
‘Plant flavonoids — compounds that produce the colourful pigments found in red and yellow peppers, purple aubergines and green leafy vegetables — have been shown in studies to have anti-inflammatory effects on cells, as well as anti-viral and anti-tumour actions.’
You may well have never heard of them, but keeping your glial cells healthy is important for a range of brain functions, says Tony Dickenson, a professor of neuroscience, physiology and pharmacology at University College London
Keep an eye on your thyroid
Many people have an underactive thyroid, when the gland does not produce enough of the hormone thyroxine, leading to symptoms that are troublesome but non-specific — but which can lead to cognitive decline.
It is estimated that one in 20 people in the UK has a thyroid problem, but it could be higher, with many people being unaware they have a problem.
An underactive thyroid can lead to poor memory and cognitive decline, because thyroid hormones are essential for brain function, says Stephen Shalet, an emeritus professor of endocrinology at the Christie Hospital in Manchester.
‘Thyroid hormone deficiency, even of short duration, may lead to irreversible brain damage, the consequences of which depend not only on the severity, but also on the specific timing of onset and duration of the deficiency.
‘There’s no way of preventing an underactive thyroid but it is treatable with tablets to replace the hormones your thyroid is not making. If you have symptoms of lethargy or unexplained weight gain, particularly if you’re a woman aged 40 to 50, have your thyroid tested.’
Many people have an underactive thyroid, when the gland does not produce enough of the hormone thyroxine, leading to symptoms that are troublesome but non-specific — but which can lead to cognitive decline
…As well as your hearing
Hearing loss is largely inevitable with age, but according to the charity Action on Hearing Loss, around four million Britons who would benefit from hearing aids don’t use them.
And yet research suggests that people with severe hearing loss have five times the risk of developing dementia compared with someone with good hearing. This could be because people with deafness gradually become socially isolated, a risk factor for dementia.
‘Conversation is stimulating but for people who can’t hear the conversation, trying to decipher what is being said takes a lot of mental effort,’ says audiologist Rony Ganguly, who is chair of the Association of Independent Hearing Healthcare Professionals.
‘This increased strain on the hearing brain is not good for it in the long term, and their brains begin to shrink because of lack of use and stimulation. We can’t cure deafness but we have advanced hearing aids which can allow people to play their full part in life.
‘I would advise people to get tested early and start wearing a hearing aid as soon as they need to. Generally speaking, the earlier a patient gets their hearing aid fitted, the better it works and the happier they are with the result.
‘If I fit a hearing aid to someone who is 80 or 90 and has never worn one before, the results can be poor because the auditory nerves have been without stimulation for so long and the neural pathways are fused and less able to adapt to transmitting new messages from the inner ear to the brain.’
Hearing loss is largely inevitable with age, but according to the charity Action on Hearing Loss, around four million Britons who would benefit from hearing aids don’t use them
Sleep is also anti-ageing
Sleep is when the brain does a deep clean — unless this waste is flushed out, over time it can build up to form clumps of toxic proteins linked with dementia. Getting seven to nine hours’ sleep is as essential for a healthy life as good diet and exercise, says Professor Russell Foster, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford.
Keep eyes open in bed
It sounds counterintuitive, but if you want to hasten sleep try lying in bed in the dark with your eyes open, says Colin Espie, a professor of sleep medicine at the University of Oxford. This is part of a technique called ‘paradoxical intention’ that he first described in 1985, which means resisting sleep instead of trying to force it.
Professor Espie says: ‘When people get anxious about not being able to sleep, they can’t sleep. Instead of trying to force sleep, the idea is to turn to the tables so you find yourself giving up on trying to stay awake.
‘When people start to find it hard to keep their eyes open, we tell them to keep them open a few seconds longer until they have to abandon that and closing their eyes feels like a relief,’ says Professor Espie. ‘This allows you to discover the drive to sleep is very strong and accept it will always happen naturally.’
Don’t shun separate beds
If your partner snores, you’re likely to lose an hour of sleep a night. And when your partner moves in their sleep, research shows there’s a 50 per cent chance your sleep will be disturbed. Professor Foster says: ‘If they are a big snorer, get them tested for obstructive sleep apnoea [when the soft tissue at the back of the throat relaxes, temporarily obstructing the airway]. And think about separate rooms. Sleeping together is not an indicator of the strength of your relationship, and may be bad for sleep.’
If your partner snores, you’re likely to lose an hour of sleep a night. And when your partner moves in their sleep, research shows there’s a 50 per cent chance your sleep will be disturbed
Gut advice to digest
As we get older, our gut and digestive tract, like the rest of our body, recovers less quickly from injury — such as drinking too much, says Professor Gordon Carlson, a consultant gastric surgeon at Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust.
‘As a result we are more prey to malignant changes; most people with bowel cancer are over 70.’ It can also affect our quality of life — a healthy microbiome (the bacteria that live in our guts) is linked to better immunity.
Eat an unripe banana a day
We know fibre is important for gut health, but there’s evidence that a diet rich in ‘resistant starch’ may protect against bowel cancer, says Professor Carlson. ‘You find this in relatively unripe bananas: I have one a day.’
After analysing diet and cancer rates from 12 countries, a team from the Medical Research Council in Cambridge found the more starch consumed, the lower the incidence of bowel cancer.
One theory is that resistant starch ferments in the large intestine, producing good bacteria that can boost overall gut health. Other sources include cooled, cooked potatoes.
Have 30 fruit and veg a week
We know we should be eating at least five fruits and vegetables a day. But we should also aim for 30 different types over the week.
The American Gut Project, a study of the microbiome, found that is because a healthy gut has a diverse community of microbes, each of which prefers different foods. So the more varied your diet, the more diverse so-called ‘good’ bacteria will thrive.
Federica Amati, a research associate at Imperial College London, and chief nutrition scientist for Indi Supplements, says we should include sources rich in the plant compounds polyphenols which reduce inflammation. ‘Add dark-coloured berries, aubergines, beetroot and red cabbage to your shop,’ she says.
Use a night vision torch
The older we get the more likely it is our sleep is disturbed by the need to go to the loo. That’s because as we age, our bodies produce less of a hormone that helps concentrate urine, so it’s harder to hold it until the morning.
In men, pressure on the bladder from the prostate gland, which gets bigger with age, also means they have to empty it more often.
Professor James Goodwin, director of science and research impact at Brain Health Network, a network of academics aiming to raise awareness of the importance of how to keep the brain healthy, says the secret to making sure this doesn’t disturb your sleep is to use a night vision torch, which uses red light to light your path.
‘If I wake during the night, I don’t put on the overhead light, which emits blue light which makes the brain alert and disturbs sleep. Blue light is perceived by the “cone” cells of the retina. At night these are switched off.’
If you turn on a bright light, however, you turn them on and this stimulates a reticular formation — a mass of activity in the nerve cells and fibres in the brain that helps control the sleep-wake cycle.
‘If I have to check the time during the night, I use a torch with a red lens. That gives off longer wavelength red or “evening” light which doesn’t have the same effect,’ says Professor Goodwin.
Compiled by Thea Jourdan, Tanith Carey & Angela Epstein.