A popular science book by a world leading neuropsychiatry professor offers some helpful tips for older people on boosting memory. 

His advice includes keeping the brain mentally active, taking regular exercise, engaging in social interaction and eating well – all opportunities available in droves at Fernhill House. 

The home is regularly adding to its packed activity programme – with dancers, musicians and speakers among its visitors, regular outings, exercise classes, alternative therapies such as sound therapy and reiki, quizzes and a mouthwatering menu created by an award winning chef.   

“Our Ageing Brains” by Andre Aleman, Professor of Cognitive Neuropsychiatry at the University Medical Centre in Groningen in the Netherlands, looks at why and how our brains age and how we can slow the erosion of brain function. 

Prof Aleman explains that the volume of the brain shrinks by about 15 per cent between the ages of 30 and 90. But while scientists used to believe no new neurons were generated once we reached adulthood, latest research indicates that most brain cells remain reasonably intact until we die, with thousands of new neurons produced daily, even in the older brain.   

The professor explains that diet, exercise, social interaction and intellectual stimulation all play a vital role in keeping our brains alert.             

Cutting calories reduces oxidative stress, the process that occurs when chemically reactive molecules containing oxygen are produced in greater numbers than normal. Some of these molecules are ‘free radicals’, which can cause damage to cells, including the neurons in the brain.   

Avoid eating too many carbohydrates and sugars. In combination with little exercise, this increases the risk of diabetes, which is bad for the brain and can hasten dementia.   Opt instead for a balanced diet including proteins, grains, vegetables and fruits. 

A Dutch study showed improved brain function results from the consumption of lignans, hormone-like substances found in plants such as sesame seeds, linseed oil, broccoli, cabbage, peaches, and strawberries. There is evidence that brain functioning in older people is heavily dependent on vitamin B12, which is found in foods including beef and cod and is also available in B12-enriched soy milk and yeast extracts such as Marmite. 

Around a quarter of old people are deficient in B12. . Other dietary benefits can be gained from omega-3 fatty acids, found in oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and herring which have positive effect on the cell walls of our neurons, enabling better transport of the substances needed for them to function effectively. 

Cognitive training is also important in keeping our brains busy, with a study at the University of Southern California showing that it can improve cognitive functions by 10 per cent.   Exercise is also beneficial - possibly because of better oxygen flow to the brain. It also stimulates the release of chemicals that promote the healing of damaged tissue, along with the growth of brain cells and the formation of new connections between them.   

In one study of 120 participants with an average age was 67, those who undertook moderate-intensity exercise for a year saw a growth of two per cent in the hippocampus, the part of the brain which is essential to storing information in the memory. It is normal in people of that age to have shrunk by 1.5 per cent.   Research into large numbers of people who exercise regularly has shown that it reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s by as much as 50 per cent.   

Even people who only began to exercise at the age of 60 can benefit, and the recommendation for people over 55 is half an hour of moderately intensive exercise on at least five days, and preferably every day, of the week.   

Studies have shown that people who have worked their whole lives with their brains have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Working past retirement age is a good way to remain mentally active.   

Another study involved older people who became volunteer teaching assistants with preschool children who experienced increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain which is key to memory, and their ability to perform various mental tasks improved correspondingly.   

Activities such as using the computer, playing games and engaging in creative activities have also been shown to improve mental functioning. And there is evidence that, rather than just developing the particular skills required for each activity, participants increased their mental capacity across the board. 
Other brain-boosting activities include learning a new language or musical instrument. A study of 70 healthy people between the ages of 60 and 83 showed that those who regularly played an instrument scored better on a variety of neuropsychological tests.