Less than 20 years ago, people thought that running or going regularly to the gym was for fitness freaks.
But step outside your front door today and you can barely move for joggers and cyclists, while it’s entirely normal to be a member of a gym.
In short, most people understand that their physical wellbeing is largely down to themselves, and that it can be vastly improved if only they choose to do so.
But what most don’t realise is that exactly the same is true of their brain fitness, too. Just as our bodies age, so do our brains — with consequences that range from the irritating, such as forgetting why we came into a room, to the terrifying, such as dementia.
However, just as with our physical health, there are a range of options available to us to improve our brain health.
In fact, the single most important discovery neuroscientists have made since I first became a brain surgeon 15 years ago is that your brain’s health is largely within your own control.
The brain has a remarkable ability to heal itself. We already know, for example, that every brain can make a comeback following a devastating illness or injury.
Neurosurgeons like myself witness the living proof in patients who’ve experienced strokes, injuries or brain cancer yet who manage to make incredible recoveries.
Neuro gym: The pecking order
When you’re trying to remember things, use the lesson of the pecking pigeons (see main article) and intentionally practise area-restricted searches.
Diligently scour your brain, first for categories and then for items in each category.
This easy exercise takes less than five minutes — all you need is a piece of paper and a pencil.
Set a timer for two minutes then write down the names of as many kinds of water-dwelling creatures as you can.
When you have finished, try the exercise again, but this time using the following categories, listing as many as you can in two minutes.
1. Freshwater fish
2. Ocean-dwelling fish
3. Ocean-dwelling mammals
4. Dangerous fish
5. Sea creatures that have shells
You should find that you listed many more different kinds of water-dwelling creatures second time round, using the five categories.
Area-restricted searches work for people, just like it works for bacteria — and pigeons!
They can relearn to walk, talk, regain fine motor skills and improve their brain function, using techniques practised not only in a hospital but also at home. And if my patients can do this, why would anyone doubt that healthy people can’t push their brain-power into a higher gear too?
Because although most of your brain cells are formed in the womb, certain parts of your brain — those areas concerned with memory and learning — continue to create neurons throughout your life.
And all of us can help our brains do this. In an exclusive two-part Daily Mail series starting today, I’ll show you how to take control of your own brain health and practical ways you can boost your memory and ability to solve problems.
Think of it as a boot camp for your brain. Based on solid, cutting-edge science, my advice and exercises will make your mind fitter, healthier and stronger.
So how do you keep your brain young? There are three key activities we must all make sure we continue to do throughout our lives: keep learning; be sociable; and keep active.
Research shows people with degrees tend to stay in better brain health than those who did not go on to further education.
The reason is that education helps you to develop a larger amount of ‘cognitive reserve’ — and those with this greater quantity of brain-power can afford to lose more, due to natural shrinkage with age, before their brain starts showing obvious signs of decline.
That’s why two people whose brains have shrunk equally can appear dramatically different in terms of how quickly their brains seem to age. Those who put their brains to better use can withstand greater loss of brain matter.
But even if you left school at 16, there’s no reason why you can’t continue to study or learn and reap the benefits too.
Anything that requires reading, concentration and memorising is good — from doing multiplication sums in your head to spelling words backwards and learning another language.
Just the effort you make trying to learn something unfamiliar will help to unlock long-unused recesses of your mind.
Neuro gym: Target your weak spots
The most effective method of memorising facts — at least in the short-term — is self-testing.
Many people first read, then re-read — perhaps several times — the material they’re trying to learn.
But it’s much more efficient and effective to read it just once, then repeatedly test yourself on key questions on the material, according to studies by psychologists at Washington University, St Louis.
This is because self-testing helps you to identify your weak spots — which you can then go back and correct.
Try it the next time you have to learn something — and you’ll see what a powerful memory tool it actually is.
It’s also vital to keep in contact with others. The more friends you have, the lower your risk of developing dementia, according to numerous studies.
It’s been estimated that older people with many friendships and relationships could be between 25 and 50 per cent less likely to develop dementia than those with few friends or family contacts.
One study of ‘super agers’ at Northwestern University in Chicago followed a group of 24 people aged 80 and over who had retained the brainpower of people in their 50s.
Recruits were selected by their ability to recall a list of 15 random words half an hour after having them read to them. An average 80-year-old remembers only five, while an average 50-year-old remembers nine or more.
The ‘super agers’, however, remembered at least nine — and some could recall all 15.
One distinguishing factor shared by all the ‘super agers’ was that of being extroverted and having many more social contacts than their peers.
The third key activity for brain health is exercise, which is just as vital for your brain as it is for your body.
Indeed, keeping physically active is one of the best ways of maintaining and even improving your brain health as you age. Countless studies have shown that regular exercise can directly improve your brain function.
Five brilliant challenges to boost your brain power
Puzzles and games are fun. But scientific studies show most ordinary puzzles don’t necessarily make you cleverer or better at handling life’s challenges.
These exercises, however, have been specifically selected to expand your capacity to think and remember better.
1 Multiply two-digit numbers in your head
Why is it so easy for most of us to multiply 6 times 3 in our head, but so difficult to multiply 16 times 32?
Part of the reason is that most of us learned our times tables as schoolchildren — so we don’t have to think of the answer — it’s already stored in our long-term memory.
We’ve seen how important your ‘working’ memory is — it’s like a mental notepad that keeps track of a conversation, remembers why you walked upstairs and helps you think through a problem.
Multiplying two-digit numbers is a good way to test your working memory — and to strengthen it in the process. Mental multiplication actually improves your working memory. It’s a fundamental skill that gets better with practice.
Here are ten problems. Do them once… and then spend five minutes a day doing other two-digit multiplication problems in your head.
18 x 21 43 x 82
96 x 58 29 x 72
35 x 19 84 x 33
17 x 71 97 x 63
24 x 45 12 x 81
2 Spell words backward in your head
Spelling words backwards forces your brain to think hard and use your working memory. Here are ten words. Look at each one, then close your eyes and spell it backwards in your head. You’ll be surprised how hard it is!
To really build your brain-power, though, you need to keep doing it. Spend just five minutes a day thinking up words and then spelling them backwards in your head. Try it the next time you’re on a bus or on a train.Try the following:
3 Start using your non-dominant hand
Unfamiliar activities force brain cells to sprout new connections. It’s amazing how badly most of us write with our non-dominant hand. The part of your brain that controls that hand simply hasn’t been challenged. Try using it, and you will literally be building brain connections — and strengthening your neurofitness.
4 Embrace the great outdoors
Exposure to nature improves your mental functioning. A study by the University of Michigan found that students who took a memory test scored 20 per cent better if they walked in a forest rather than in a city before they did the test.
Another study, in the journal Psychological Science, found that walking in nature, or even just looking at pictures of nature, significantly improved attention and short-term memory.
And just an hour’s walk in a park will relieve stress, stimulate your mind, lower blood pressure and strengthen your neurofitness.
5 Get your nose in a book
Reading a book makes people smarter. It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare or Stephen Hawking — but pondering a new idea, guessing how a story will end or trying to figure out a character’s motivation all makes you use your brain. The more you use it the stronger it gets. Pick whatever subject appeals to you and just get stuck in.
And surprisingly, perhaps, resistance training was found to bring much greater benefits than aerobic exercise, with increased muscle tone directly associated with improved brain function in several studies.
That said, there’s a significant benefit to your brain and body from all forms of exercise — and regularity is key.
The greatest benefits come from a combination of muscle strengthening plus aerobic exercise — which is much more effective than either by itself.
shrinkage is just one of many processes that occur in the older brain.
Its most obvious effect is seen in the working memory, the work space in your brain where you can hold or manipulate a handful of facts and figures.
This space has limits, and the older you get the tighter the limits; this is why mathematicians, musicians and physicists tend to do their best work when they’re young and why once-simple tasks get progressively more difficult with age.
It also helps you to multi-task and juggle life’s responsibilities, so it’s precisely the type of brain function most healthy people want to optimise.
You can do some simple exercises at home to enhance your brain capacity and strengthen your working memory.
And the good news about your ageing brain is that more people than ever are living into their 80s in excellent brain health. And the rate of Alzheimer’s, far from increasing, is actually falling.
Around 850,000 Britons currently suffer from dementia and, although the total number of cases is rising as people are living longer, the risk of getting dementia is actually lower.
In fact, since the Seventies, the risk of dementia due to any cause has fallen by 15 per cent every decade — proving that lifestyle plays a major role in how our brains age and that dementia is not an immutable force.
Memory of one kind or another is at the heart of all life. What else is DNA but a way for life to remember its own blueprint for reproduction? You might assume that a brain is necessary for remembering, but that’s not so.
Consider E. coli, the single-celled bacteria that live in the guts of most warm-blooded creatures (humans included) where they’re usually harmless but occasionally cause food-borne sickness. Incredibly, they have a version of a short-term memory.
When they’re swimming around in your intestines looking for food, they keep going in a straight line until they find something nutritious, then stop and eat.
Then they pirouette around in a tight circle, looking for more food nearby. Once a localised area is exhausted, they continue on their way. This is called area-restricted searching, and almost all animals do it. For instance, if a pigeon finds a crumb under a chair, it will carry on pecking nearby until no crumbs are left, then flutter off to another spot.
Both parts of this strategy are really important — making sure you find every last crumb in a given area, and then systematically searching other areas.
What’s curious is that the human brain works in exactly the same way, using area-restricted search.
If I asked you to list all the animals you could think of, you may well begin with the category of ‘pets’ (cats, dogs, budgies, goldfish). Once you’ve run out of animals to list, you’ll move on to another category such as ‘farm animals’ or ‘jungle animals’ — exhausting each category before moving on rather like the E.coli in your gut or a pigeon pecking for crumbs.
A fascinating study, in the journal Memory And Cognition, found that smarter people can list more animals overall than less intelligent people — but only because they are better at thinking up more categories in which to mentally search.
When the researchers ran the test again with another set of participants, they asked all those taking part to use a set list of categories (such as pets, jungles, farms, woods). As a result the gap between the smarter and less smart people disappeared.
Dr Rahul Jandial is both a brain surgeon and a neuroscientist. He is associate professor of neurosurgery based at City of Hope Hospital in Los Angeles, where he not only performs brain surgery but also teaches medical students to conduct neuroscience and oncology research. He is married to a cancer doctor and has three sons.
Adapted by Judith Keeling from LIFE LESSONS FROM A BRAIN SURGEON by Dr Rahul Jandial, published by Penguin Life on June 27 at £16.99. © Dr Rahul Jandial 2019. To order a copy for £13.59 (offer valid to 22/6/19; p&p free on orders over £15), call 0844 571 0640.
The power of language
People who learn a second language get a significant boost to their brain function that lasts a lifetime. Brain mapping shows that different areas of the brain are used to handle different languages — so by learning a second language you’re helping to strengthen other parts of your brain. How does this work?
Numerous studies show that those who speak more than one language can focus not only more clearly but also have more grey matter, the central mass of cells in your brain. Researchers at the University of Birmingham recently studied 99 volunteers; half spoke only English, while the remainder had been bilingual in English and Mandarin since childhood. The English-only speakers performed slower on two out of three tests of attention. Scientists believe the benefits of speaking two languages are partly due to the fact the brain must actively suppress one language when speaking another. Being able to handle the extra workload results in stronger overall control of attention. This is reflected in brain images of children and adults who speak two languages who have more grey and white matter (the network of connectors linking brain cells) than those who don’t.
A four-year American study of school children in Portland, Oregon, randomly assigned some seven-year-olds to English-only classes, while the rest attended dual-language classes in Spanish, Mandarin or Japanese. By the time they were 11, the dual-language children were a whole year more advanced in terms of their English reading skills than their peers in the English-only group.
PROTECTION AGAINST DEMENTIA
A remarkable 2007 study in Toronto showed that people who speak more than one language developed symptoms of dementia about four years later than those who spoke only one. A recent review in the journal Current Opinion in Neurology concluded: ‘Life-long bilingualism represents a powerful cognitive reserve delaying the onset of dementia. You may not have been lucky enough to learn another language as a child, but it’s never too late to start and reap some of the brain health benefits, too.
On Monday: the mental tricks to beat anxiety