Once upon a time it was thought that memory loss was a normal function of ageing, and that if you were becoming forgetful, it was a sign that you were just getting old and, well, perhaps a bit dotty!
But recent research into the brain indicates that brain and cognitive decline are not generally automatic or inevitable. Rather, studies show that the brain has neuroplasticity - meaning it has the capacity to generate new neurons and synapses throughout life. This makes it highly adaptable or, in other words, able to respond to changing situations and environments, and even to heal after injury in many cases.
Your brain doesn't reach a certain maximum size or capacity from which it all just goes downhill into decline. There are in fact many quite simple things you can do to keep your brain in good health and protect it against cell loss, in the process reducing the risk of memory loss and brain diseases such as dementia.
What you can do
The mental side:
- Brain exercises - these can go beyond jigsaw puzzles or crosswords, valuable as those are. University of California neuroscientist Dr Michael Merzenich has developed his BrainHQ exercises specifically to improve brain ‘fitness' and strengthen memory and function.
- ‘Use it or lose it' - this is one of Dr Merzenich's mantras! As an example he recommends avoiding GPS devices, instead studying road maps and using your memory to recall where you are going and how you will get there. One way you might do this is to look intently for several minutes at the map and create a strong mental image of the route you intend taking in your mind.
- Learn something new - the brain loves new challenges! Learning completely new and previously unfamiliar tasks and facts or doing a course outside of your usual set of skills can help develop and rewire your brain, improving memory and cognitive function.Challenging your brain is also a form of positive stress in that it creates minute amounts of cortisol and noradrenaline that are enough to stimulate your mind, as opposed to large amounts of stress hormones that can have the opposite effect.New challenges also help to overcome boredom which can leave you feeling drained and apathetic. And while the early stages of a new challenge can feel overwhelming, once you get past that hurdle it can lead to a kind of ‘high' - especially if you achieve something you never thought you would!
- Play more - it's well-known that when children play is it not just fun and frivolous folly but a workout for their developing brains. Often as results-oriented adults we can tend to see play as a waste of time and energy. Yet it may be the case we need to have more play in our lives. It's important to make sure it is fun - which leads us to the next point!
- Laugh lots - laughter helps produce feel-good hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin. You may even have noticed that when you share a joke or laugh with others, it often tends to create a kind of social bond between you, and helps foster positive relationships - which feeds right into our next tip!