How to keep your mind razor sharp

  • Sanchita Sharma, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Dec 13, 2014 19:12 IST

Everyone, irrespective of whether they are CERN physicists creating anti-matter by smashing sub-atomic particles or geeks running empires generated out of ideas, wants a sharper, more efficient brain. The good news is that changes in the structures of the brain continue through life and are influenced by how you live your life or choose to use it.

Keep your brain razor sharp (Photo: Shutterstock)

This adaptability is perhaps best highlighted by the Nature Neuroscience study that found the region of the brain associated with navigational ability and spatial memory (located in the back of the hippocampus, just above the brain stem) becomes enlarged in London cabbies. The longer they had been driving, the bigger is the change.

But the brain, like the rest of the body, slows down as we grow older and loses some of its agility and capacity to learn and recall. An under-utilised and ageing brain may develop problems with memory, language, thinking and judgment that may be noticeable but not severe enough to interfere with your day or for you to seek medical help.

So, you may realise that it takes you a little longer to think of a word or to recall a name, or that you are losing your train of thought more often, or just feeling increasingly overwhelmed with decisions, planning or following instructions.

Brain feeds on how we live
There's no single cause for failing memory, just as there's no single outcome for it. It may improve with some effort, or the signs may remain stable, or it may worsen with time. What all neurologists agree on is that if you give as much thought to your brain as you do to your body, the brain will keep whirring longer.

Red flags for age-related memory loss-- cognitive decline, in medical parlance-- and even severe brain-function loss seen in Alzheimer's and neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's, can show up decades earlier, reported researchers at the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology annual meeting in on Thursday.

A study of 3,499 adults followed since early adulthood (ages 18-30 years) through midlife (ages 43-55 years) showed that behaviours that keep your heart healthy also boost your brain power. Sustained exposure to modifiable risks factors such as high blood pressure and high blood sugar and lifestyle behaviours such as bad diet, no exercise and smoking can predict brain function decline.

The US researchers showed that high blood pressure and low physical activity over the 25 years was associated with worse brain function in midlife, based on standard tests such as the Stroop Interference Score, the Digit Symbol Substitution Test and the Rey Auditory Verbal learning Test.

Last fortnight, researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reported that diabetes, prediabetes and poor glucose control in people with diabetes in midlife speeds up memory loss over the following 20 years. An analysis of data from 15,792 middle-aged adults followed since 1987 showed that people with poorly controlled diabetes experienced a fall in brain function, including reduced memory, word recall and executive functioning, five years before healthy people. The study was published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

Most of us have reason to worry. About 65 million people have diabetes in India and an equal number have insulin resistance that puts them at risk of it. This makes diabetes almost as common as the common cold, but unlike the cold, it does not go away on its own. It needs to be treated but roughly only half the people with diabetes are undiagnosed or untreated.

Lowering risk
Brain-imaging studies of people with memory loss shows shrinkage of the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory forming, organising, and storing; presence of beta-amyloid protein (plaques) and microscopic protein clumps characteristic of Alzheimer's disease; enlargement of the brain's ventricles (fluid-filled spaces); reduced blood flow through brain blood vessels; and lowered use of glucose, which is the primary source of energy for the brain's grey cells.

While most of us know the basics of brain training (mentally-stimulating activities such as learning a new language, doing crosswords or being socially active), but now a clutch of studies show that lifestyle choices - healthy diet, exercise, not smoking, controlling high cholesterol and blood glucose levels etc - may play a bigger role than believed earlier.

The basic blueprint for vision, language and memory in the brain is progressively refined by how you choose to use it. With a little effort, your brain will be as sharp as you want it to be. This is a truism scientifically established. Think about it.

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