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The ageing brain: 'use it or lose it'

Updated Monday, 8 June 2020
What happens to our brains as we age and is there anything we can do to prevent memory loss and brain shrinkage? This article digs into the research...

In the Ageing Well Public Talk Series (available via ORDO Collections or this OpenLearn Create free course), we explore how important it is, over our lifespan, to maintain well-balanced nutrition and hydration as well as regular physical and social activity. We explore how, by doing this, we can delay the ageing processes for as long as we can. This is well supported by the ‘Five Pillars of Ageing Well’, in other words: nutrition, hydration, physical activity, cognitive and social stimulation. For more information, look at the OpenLearn article on ‘Five Pillars of Ageing Well’.

As we know, we start ageing the moment we are born. The process of ageing is demonstrated more significantly when we reach a certain age, the usual benchmark being 65+, but our ageing starts much sooner, and the way ageing demonstrates itself when we are over 65 depends on the decisions we have been making over our life span.

The age associated decline is both physical and cognitive. In other words, it affects our muscles, bones, joints, our brain as well as all other organs. Our brain is in a sense a central computer where everything that is happening in our bodies and minds gets processed. It is interesting that our brain consumes around 20% of all glucose and 20% of all oxygen consumed by the whole body.

old man with a shovel (asian)

As we know, exercise helps to keep our blood regularly circulating. Regular circulation of blood is hugely important for all our organs and tissues but especially for our brain. Our physical and cognitive functions are dependent on the glucose and oxygen our blood brings in. The more regular this supply is the better our brain functions, even while ageing.

The way our bodies process medication slows down remarkably too with increasing age.Often, we are troubled by questions, such as whether it is ‘normal’ to start forgetting names, or faces or what people do, or did we switch off the oven before we left home? Usually the answer is ‘yes’, as all this is an expected part of the decline brought about by age-related changes. It is the natural ‘wear and tear’ of our brain. When we are younger, there is also tiredness that affects the whole system but it is much easier to sleep it off. The older we become, the more worn out our bodies and brains get and sleep does not really get better as we grow older.   

With increasing age, our metabolism slows down, making food processing last longer and become a more energy consuming process. Food processing isn’t the only thing affected by ageing though. The way our bodies process medication slows down remarkably too with increasing age. This is mostly because our kidney and liver functions slow down naturally with ageing and we are often lightly, if not moderately, dehydrated. This means that any medication we take, takes longer to get absorbed, metabolised and eliminated. This means that the medication staying longer in our body might have a toxic effect, especially if we need to take another medication before the previous one is eliminated. This toxicity has an effect also on our brain, making us feel more sedated, and it could make us feel dizzy, wobbly, weak, nauseous, unable to focus and more forgetful. Feeling that way does not help us keep exercising (doing any physical activity or house chores) and we may tend to stay sedentary at home, as we are rightfully afraid of falling.

glass of water and ice cubes

With good levels of hydration (strict minimum is 1.5 litres of water per day – better still, 2 litres/4 pints of clear liquids per day) and regular exercise, our metabolism will work at an optimal level. This will help our body and brain to cope better with changes that ageing brings.

The famous motto that goes with ageing is: ‘Use it or lose it’. This is true about all physical functions as well as our brain functions. We do need to regularly exercise/train the functions we do not want to lose. Not being able to concentrate and/or feeling more forgetful is usually linked to our attention span. The way our memory works depends in many ways on our attention span. The lower the attention span, the less we remember. Attention span naturally decreases with ageing but exercising our brain might help us to keep the decline at a slow rate. Some of the ‘brain exercise’ suggestions below, might be useful:

  • Play games you are familiar with but also games you are not familiar with that involve strategy, like chess or bridge, and word games like Scrabble. Try crossword and other word puzzles, or number puzzles such as Sudoku.
  • Read newspapers, magazines, and books that challenge you. Books are fantastic, as when engaging with the story, you make acquaintance of many human characters and see them progressing through the book. This enormously stimulates our brain.
  • Get in the habit of learning new things: games, recipes, driving routes, a musical instrument, a foreign language. Take a course in an unfamiliar subject that interests you. The more interested and engaged your brain, the more likely you’ll be to continue learning, and the greater the benefits you’ll experience.
  • Take on a project that involves design and planning.
  • Learn a new dance. Dancing is amazingly stimulating for both our body and our brain as we focus not only on music, rhythm but also new steps and our partner.
  • Stay social – meet with people you already know and also with those who you may not know.
  • Engage with anything you like and you are likely to engage with again in the future. As with any exercise, if we wish for the exercise to have effect on us we need to engage with the exercise repeatedly and we are more likely to repeat something we enjoy doing.

Research also indicates that walking six to nine miles every week can prevent brain shrinkage and memory loss. Starting a regular exercise routine, including cardio and strength training, may reduce our risk of developing dementia by up to 50 %. What’s more, exercise can also slow further deterioration in those who have already started to develop cognitive problems. Exercise protects against Alzheimer’s by stimulating the brain’s ability to maintain old connections as well as by making new ones.

elderly couple on a walk

Our lifestyle, health habits, and daily activities have a strong impact on the health of our brain. Nutrition, hydration, physical activity, cognitive and social stimulation, also known as The Five Pillars of Ageing Well will help us keep our brain function at an optimal level.

For a more comprehensive account on ‘the Ageing Brain’, the biomedical reasons to ageing and reversible causes to memory loss, please do come to our ‘Ageing Well Public Talk Series’ – see plan for academic year 2020/2021 and/or see Talk 2. Ageing Brain within the Ageing Well Public Talk Series available via ORDO Collections or OpenLearn Create free course.


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