Like the rest of our bodies, our brain changes with each passing year. As children, our brains are like little sponges – soaking up every experience and grain of information life throws at us.
As the years pass, we become smarter and sharper, adapting to the world around us, up until our late twenties when the brain’s ageing process begins and we start losing neurons – the cells that make up the brain and nervous system.
As we reach our late 50s, our brains have literally begun to shrink. Normal, yes, but scary? A little. It’s a fact that mid-lifers’ reasoning skills start to slow. And parts of the memory start to fade, ever so slightly. You might start to feel a bit forgetful.
Finding the door keys might go missing. You may find yourself walking into a room without knowing why. You might forget to pick up the dry-cleaning, or post that important letter. You may feel indecisive; like you don’t know which path to choose, or where you want your life to take you next.
But there is good news. Studies show that other measures of cognition – things like moral decision-making, regulating emotions and reading social situations – have been shown to actually improve as we reach middle-age, meaning that today’s mid-lifers have never more of a wiser, level-headed bunch (with or without door keys).
Looking after brain health is something we should all factor into our lives, but there’s never been a better time to get proactive than when you reach your golden years. Read on for top tips on keeping that spongey thing in your head as healthy as can be, from boosting your memory to strengthening your attention span and relaxing the mind…
5 SIMPLE BRAINTEASERS TO TRY
- Puzzles like sudoku and crosswords – don’t underestimate their powers. Feeling bored? Pick up that magazine on your coffee table and get scribbling. They stimulate your memory and trigger the problem-solving part of your brain.
- Dig out the jigsaws – they force you to use both sides of the brain; the left side, which thinks logically and follows sequences, and the right side, which is more creative and intuitive.
- Try out spelling exercises. Spelling out words forces you to mentally ‘see’ the word, prior to saying it out loud or writing it down. Test yourself to wake up the brain’s language-related areas.
- Learn a new word every day. Who cares if it’s in another language. Repeat it, try to spell it out. Write it down. Doing so will press on the brain’s prefrontal lobes where judgement and executive function live.
- Work with your hands. Try knitting, try making a model ship, build something with nothing but your fingers. It’ll fine-tune your finger control (a great skill that we are all born with, but rarely make good use of, unless you play an instrument or perform surgery for a living) and help boost concentration.
GET YOUR ‘OM’ ON
Much like yoga and pilates, meditation has become a bit trendy in recent years. But it’s not a fad – with practice, it actually works, sending your brain, senses and body as a whole into a relaxed, peaceful state. Here’s three reasons why giving it a go might make your mind healthier:
- It stops the mind from wandering. Meditation is all about ‘clearing’ the mind of negative or unnecessary thoughts – that noise in your brain that many of us just can’t switch off. By slowing down your thoughts, you’re encouraging your brain to enter a more relaxed state, regulating heart rate, blood flow and the nervous system.
- Although relaxing, meditation requires a strong focus (on an object, idea or activity, like breathing), so it’s not so surprising to know that it also helps improve the parts of your brain responsible for concentration, self-awareness and attention.
- It balances out your emotions. A lot of people start meditating in a bid to reduce stress – and are happy to discover that it does just that. Give it a few weeks and you’ll be surprised at how much calmer and in control of your emotions you feel. Meditation forces you to confront negative thoughts, ride them out, and release them mentally through guided breathing.
CATCH SOME Z’S… WAYS TO MAKE YOUR BRAIN SLEEP BETTER
Changes to our sleep patterns are a part of the normal ageing process, but that doesn’t mean you have to surrender to a life of insomnia and restless nights. It’s a common misconception that sleep needs decline with age – we actually need more! Here’s some tips on how to get it:
- Stick to a sleep schedule. As babies, our parents would (try to!) create some kind of a routine to help us sleep at night and remain happy little cherubs during the day. And we should take inspiration from this as we reach mid-life. Set strict alarms to stick to the same bedtime and ‘wake up’ time, even at weekends. This will help regulate your body clock, stop feelings of grogginess and help you drift off at night.
- Evaluate your space. Your bedroom should be cool – between 15 and 19C. It should free of light – especially artificial brightness from TVs, tablets and mobile phones. Put technology in another room to teach your brain that the bedroom is for sleep only. Check for noises and distractions (things like ticking clocks or snoring partners!) and manage these.
- Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual. Invest in snug loungewear and PJs. Curl up with a warm, decaffeinated drink and curl up with an actual book (not a Kindle). Have a warm bath (sprinkling epsom salts will relax your muscles) and spray your sheets with a gentle pillow mist. Try bedtime yoga, if that’s your thing. Give yourself a facial massage using your favourite facial oil. Train yourself to associate certain restful activities with sleep.
- Check your bedding. Make sure your mattress is comfortable and supportive. The one you have been using for years may have exceeded its life expectancy – about nine or ten years for most good quality mattresses. Invest in soft pillows and throws to make your space as inviting as possible. It’ll make you look forward to jumping in.
- Don’t lie awake at night – the anxiety of being unable to fall asleep can actually contribute to insomnia. Get up, make yourself a small, warm glass of milk (if you think that’s an old wives tale, think again), listen to some gentle music (jazz, spa music and ‘nature noise’ can help) and hop back in within at least 20 minutes.