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It was the alarming claim that made headlines this week: Covid had a ‘real lasting impact’ on the brain health of people over 50.
Scientists from the University of Exeter and King’s College London found that memory and cognitive functions, such as decision-making, declined more rapidly during the pandemic.
It raised questions about whether Britain could be facing a dementia time bomb.
Experts claimed the effects were likely due to factors exacerbated by the pandemic and subsequent restrictions, such as insufficient exercise and drinking too much alcohol, as well as loneliness and depression.
Staying healthy later in life can be difficult, especially when other health problems are involved.
But in general, is there anything people can do to keep their cognitive function and memory sharp in their 50s and beyond? We asked some experts…
Don’t stop learning
It is often thought that once you reach a certain age, it is ‘too late’ to learn something new.
“But that’s not really the case,” says Dr Anthony Thompson, postgraduate psychology program leader at Arden University.
‘Research shows that lifelong learning, together with formal education and literacy, is an important factor behind our health and safety as we age.
‘Research shows that learning new skills and acquiring knowledge can stimulate the growth of new neural connections and increase the brain’s overall plasticity. This can have a range of positive effects on cognitive function, including improved memory, attention and problem-solving skills.
‘There is also a social impact here. We have an aging population, which means there is more pressure for long-term care or healthcare support, in addition to the need for economic markets to keep up with the growing population; having an active older generation – whether through work or volunteering – delivers personal and economic benefits for generations to come.”
Whether it’s volunteering, taking up a new hobby, musical instrument or language, find new things to keep your mind well oiled.
Revealed: The science-backed diet could reduce the risk of dementia
‘Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week,’ says Dr Adam Moreton, consultant geriatric psychiatrist at Pall Mall Medical.
‘I wouldn’t recommend everyone take up marathon running, but most people can find a way to gradually and gently increase their activity levels.’
There is a wealth of research linking higher levels of physical activity to better physical and mental health later in life – including cognitive decline.
Gets enough sleep
Dr. Moreton adds: ‘Quality sleep is essential for memory consolidation and cognitive function. Aim for seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.
‘Some people can get by on less, and how much sleep you need can change as you get older.
‘But you need to wake up refreshed in the morning and if that doesn’t happen, you may not be getting enough sleep or another problem (such as depression) is getting in the way.’
If you are having trouble sleeping, contact your doctor in case there is anything else going on that they can help you with.
Take your diet and alcohol consumption into account
The food and drinks we consume are also an important factor in maintaining brain health.
Dr. Moreton says: ‘A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins can support brain health.
‘Omega-3 fatty acids from fish and nuts can also be helpful. It’s not about depriving yourself of things you enjoy, that’s important too, but what you eat is essentially fuel for your body and your brain.
‘Make sure you drink enough water throughout the day. But excessive alcohol consumption and smoking can harm cognitive function. Even if you can’t stop completely, any cuts are helpful.”
‘Chronic stress can also negatively impact cognitive function,’ says Dr Moreton.
‘Practices such as meditation, deep breathing and yoga can help reduce stress. Stress and depression can sometimes look like dementia, but the distinction is important because treating stress and depression should help resolve the memory problem.’
There are strong links between loneliness and social isolation and reduced physical and mental health – including cognitive decline.
‘Maintaining social connections and staying mentally active through conversations and social activities can support cognitive health,’ says Dr Moreton.
‘There are indications that preventing social isolation helps prevent dementia.’
If you don’t have a lot of family and friends in the area, try contacting your local Age UK and find out what community groups are in your area.
WHAT IS DEMENTIA?
A GLOBAL CARE
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of progressive neurological conditions (affecting the brain) that affect memory, thinking and behavior.
There are many forms of dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common.
Some people may have a combination of different forms of dementia.
Regardless of which type is diagnosed, each person will experience dementia in their own unique way.
Dementia is a global problem, but it is most common in wealthier countries, where people are likely to live to a very old age.
HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE AFFECTED?
The Alzheimer’s Society reports that there are currently more than 900,000 people living with dementia in the UK. This number is expected to rise to 1.6 million by 2040.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting between 50 and 75 percent of those diagnosed.
There are an estimated 5.5 million people in the US with Alzheimer’s disease. A similar percentage increase is expected in the coming years.
As a person’s age increases, so does the risk that he or she will develop dementia.
The number of diagnoses is increasing, but it is believed that many people with dementia are still undiagnosed.
IS THERE A TREATMENT?
There is currently no medicine against dementia.
But new medications can slow its progression and the sooner it is caught, the more effective treatments can be.
Source: Alzheimer’s Association
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