How to Slow the Aging of Your Brain
Your brain starts to shrink at forty. But you can slow this process decades before and after that age.
Our brains start to shrink around the age of forty. As shrinkage speeds up, our memory, perception, learning, and attention begin to degrade. It becomes harder to form complex thoughts, memorise long sequences, or solve technical problems. But not all experience this drop in brainpower at the same rate. Some people stay sharp as they age, others not so much.
Why are some brains more resilient to decline than others? The answer lies in our ability to produce neurons. Our brains, it turns out, keep making neurons even in our 90s. The more neurons you make, the more robust your brain is to ageing.
You can’t magically command your brain to produce more neurons, however. But according to experts, three simple things promote this process. Building good habits around these things can help your mind stay sharp for decades to come.
A Healthy Gut
Consider the following discoveries:
- People suffering from clinical depression are highly deficient in certain types of gut bacteria.
- Synuclein fibres — a hallmark of Parkinson’s disease — appear first in the gut before spreading to the brain.
- Changes in gut bacteria are why a high-fat diet can prevent seizures in people with epilepsy.
A wealth of research is broadcasting the same message: your gut impacts what happens in your head.
According to Professor James Goodwin, author of Supercharge Your Brain, the gut impacts your creativity, ability to learn, and how you perceive emotions in others. Even mood, decision-making, and mental well-being swing as a function of the microbiome (the gut bacteria). “For a healthy brain, you have to look after the contents of your colon,” says Goodwin in an interview with the New Scientist.
This fascinating bond between the gut and the brain begs the question: what can you do to sustain a healthy gut? Goodwin offers some tips:
- Drink plenty of water throughout the day.
- Maintain good dental hygiene.
- Set a regular schedule for meals.
- Eat a wide range of plant-based food.
- Keep an active lifestyle: daily walks, aerobics, and so forth.
These habits promote a more balanced microbiome, which helps your brain resist the decline that comes with age.
Most people who commit serious crimes share one thing in common: they never played as kids. That’s what behavioural psychologist, Stuart L. Brown, has found. According to Brown, who authored Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, play is critical to children’s mental health as it helps them grow into happy, well-adjusted adults.
But does play still matter once we are grown-ups? The answer is yes. According to Brown, play is as important in crafting the adult brain as dreams and sleep. “Without play, adults can feel down, exhausted, or burn out without knowing exactly why,” says Marc Bekoff, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Because it has no material gain, is fun, and carries no specific outcome, play promotes intrinsic motivation: the tendency to pursue something for the sake of it without seeking external rewards. Activities that promote intrinsic motivation make us happier, curious, and more energised. They can even help us find new passions or explore new areas more deeply.
According to Brown, “the opposite of play isn’t work; it’s depression.” He suggests three simple ways to get more play into your life:
- Body play: dancing, tobogganing, playing an instrument. Any form of active movement that has no time pressure or specific outcome will do.
- Object play: use your hands to create something you enjoy. It can be anything: drawing random things, sculpting, playing with blocks.
- Social play: from engaging in small talk to making a camping tent with friends to verbal jousting.
If you’re still unsure how to play, try remembering what you liked doing as a child, then turn that into an activity that fits your current circumstances. Doing things that are fun or sometimes silly is key to your mental well-being. As a result, your brain stays younger and healthier.
Learning Complex Skills
Speaking more than one language slows cognitive decline and lowers the risk of dementia. Practising a skill stimulates the growth of neurons and promotes neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to make new neural pathways. Needless to say, learning does wonders for the brain.
But not all learning is equal. In a study published in Psychological Science, researchers split adults aged sixty to ninety into two groups. They made the first group learn complex skills, such as digital photography, while the second group learned more basic activities, such as crossword puzzles. After ninety days only, the “complex skill” group made surprising gains to their short and long-term memory. In contrast, these gains were absent from the “simple skill” group.
These results show that skills that challenge you and get you out of your comfort zone are the most rewarding to your brain. Examples would be learning foreign languages, musical instruments, programming, drawing, sculpture, and choreography.
Make learning complex skills a habit. Engage in learning that demands focus, memory, and consistent practice, because that’s the kind of skills that have the highest impact on your brain’s health.
Everyone has the capacity to produce more neurons. And the more neurons you make, the slower the ageing of your brain. Whether you’re still young or in your senior years, it’s never too late to boost this process.
There is no silver bullet, quick-fix strategy, or magic diet to stop brain ageing. But the cumulative effects of simple yet powerful habits such as free play, a healthy lifestyle, and learning complex skills can rejuvenate your brain and help you live longer.