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Steps we can take now to keep our brains sharper for longer

7 February 2018

As we get older many of us worry about the potential decline of our mental capabilities. Dr Alan Gow of Heriot Watt University researches how our thinking skills change as we age and as he revealed on Brainwaves, there are some things we can do which may help.

Exercise to prevent brain shrinkage

As we get older our brain shrinks a little – a condition known as atrophy.

The brain is an astonishing organ
Dr Alan Gow

“One of the studies I worked on looked at how that shrinkage was associated with how much physical activity people did,” explained Alan.

“We found the people who were more physically active seemed to have a bit less of that shrinkage”

“To put it broadly, while the brain is an astonishing organ, it is an organ of the body so it needs to be kept in a healthy body.”

Dust off the cafetiere

A study has suggested that people who drank coffee generally had better thinking skills when they were older – more so than tea drinkers.

But Alan explained the need to exercise caution when reading the results of these studies.

“We always have to be very careful when we see a lifestyle factor associated with holding on to our thinking skills in later life,” he said.

“We have got to think, ‘Is that lifestyle factor something that randomly appears in the population, or is it an outcome of a whole bunch of other things? Are people with more or less education likely to do that kind of thing?’”.

Don’t retire

While many working people dream of the day they can finally retire, Alan warns that retirement may be detrimental.

“Some jobs might be really good for our thinking skills as we grow older; some jobs might be the thing that’s keeping us sharp,” he said.

“For some people, retirement can be quite a dramatic stop. That sudden loss for some people can be a problem. Some jobs however, are not healthy for our thinking skills.”

Stop smoking (it’s not too late!)

Alan highlights studies of smokers, non-smokers and those who have given up smoking. These have shown that the cortical layer of the brain is thinner in people who smoke. This is significant because the cortical layer is where the thinking cells reside.

But all is not lost for smokers, according to Alan.

“[Among] the people who had given up smoking, the thickness of their cortical layer was more similar to non-smokers”, he said.

So giving up smoking now could make a difference in the future.

The programme in full

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