We all worry sometimes that our brains – particularly our memories – just don’t work as well as they used to. In his illuminating book Our Ageing Brain, the internationally respected neuroscientist André Aleman shows that although the decline in our mental capacities begins earlier than we think, this is not such a bad thing. And he presents the seven most important things we can each do to keep our brains healthy. As he explains, “Everyone wants to live for a long time, but no one wants to be old.”

Our Ageing Brain

Our Ageing, André Aleman

Below is an extract from his book, and you can read an in-depth interview with Aleman here.

The Best Possible Brain

Scientifically Proven Advice

On 26 November 2011, his 100th birthday, Robert Marchand established a new world record in the French commune Mitry-Mory. He cycled for an hour in the gym, covering 23 kilometres. He had decided not to cycle on the road as it was raining and he was afraid of falling. Three months later, he repeated his performance, this time on a real racing bike and covering over 24 kilometres, in front of a group of supporters at the International Cycling Union velodrome in Aigle, Switzerland. This achievement was registered by the World Record Academy. Considering that an average cycling speed is 12 kilometres per hour, Marchand’s score is remarkable. In an interview afterwards, he joked that he had deliberately taken it easy so that others could break his record. Another reason that he didn’t push himself was he had promised his doctor not to allow his heart rate to exceed 110 beats per minute. Not that there was a problem — the week before, he had undergone his first electrocardiograph and it had shown no serious irregularities. When asked what magic potion he had in his water bottle, he replied triumphantly that his "doping regimen" consisted of water with a dash of honey. His recipe for success? He pointed out that he had always led a healthy life, had never smoked and drank little alcohol. When he was just shy of 90, he took part in the Bordeaux–Paris race, cycling 600 kilometres in 36 hours.

For a centenarian, Robert Marchand is remarkably fit. He still lives alone and goes for a bike ride almost every day. In 2011, a mountain pass in the French department of Ardèche was named after him. His advice to young and old? Keep moving!

SUCCESSFUL AGEING

Because there are more older people today than ever before, the question of how to keep your mental faculties as sharp as possible is highly topical. Sigmund Freud believed that our cognitive abilities lose their elasticity after the age of 50. In other words, you can’t teach older people anything new. But now we know the brains of senior citizens have a degree of plasticity, which means that neurons can make the new connections needed to learn new things and can compensate for the erosion of brain structure and function as we age. Of course, whether someone grows old "successfully" depends on how you define success. In the scientific literature, it is determined by three things:

  • an absence of chronic illness and impairments;
  • an ability to function mentally and physically at a reasonable level;
  • a strong connection with social contacts, family and friends.

How many 65-year-olds fall into this category? It depends on the criteria you use to define each factor. Some researchers estimate it at five per cent, which is unsurprising if you take the phrase "absence of chronic illness and impairments" literally — that excludes almost everyone. Consequently, most studies only count illnesses that last for a long time, recur frequently and impede function. Taking this and the other two factors into account, a common estimate is 30 to 50 per cent of older people in Europe and the United States.

The German psychologist Paul Baltes argued that any assessment of whether people are growing old successfully should take the views of those people into account. And what is important is the extent to which they adjust to the limitations that ageing brings. A 60-year-old can’t hit a tennis ball as hard as he could when he was 25, but that doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy the game any more. He might now focus more on position and strategy to compensate for a loss of speed and strength. Thus, what matters is not one’s declining abilities, but whether a person manages to cope with these changes in such a way that his or her quality of life isn’t seriously affected. Compared with younger adults, older people have more physical ailments, which can lead to depression. Yet they are no more likely to be depressed. How you deal with setbacks is the important thing.

Growing old healthily has to do with hereditary factors, but that’s not the whole story. Research has shown that genes account for only about one-third of the impairments that accompany ageing. More important (and accounting for two-thirds of impairments) are environmental factors — lifestyle, social support, medical care, etc. In this chapter, I list all the recommendations for optimal care of the ageing brain. A decline in cognitive function is a normal part of growing older, but a healthy and active lifestyle can considerably slow that decline. Though Robert Marchand has probably been blessed with a strong constitution and a passion for sport all his life, his habits and daily activities have undoubtedly contributed to his extremely healthy old age.

Andre Aleman is the author of Our Ageing Brain: how our mental capacities develop as we grow older, published by Scribe. 

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