Memory loss has to be one of our biggest fears. Names, words, facts and faces – nothing is spared.
As the latest video from the Head Squeeze team describes above, mental deterioration was once thought to be an inevitable consequence of ageing, thanks to the steady erosion of our brain matter: we lose about 0.5% of our brain volume every year. The hippocampus – the region responsible for memory and learning – was thought to weather particularly badly; by the time we are 90, many of us have lost around a third of its grey matter.
Fortunately, recent research has shown that the brain is not concrete, but certain regions can adapt and grow. In 2000, a study of London taxi drivers, for instance, showed that the 4-year training of London’s 25,000 streets showed a remarkable growth in the hippocampus compared to bus drivers who early learnt a fixed number of routes. The scientists think that, by memorising the maps of London, the brain had built many more of the “synaptic connections” that allow the brain cells to communicate with each other. In other words, it may be possible to train the brain to compensate for some of the neural decline that accompanies our expanding waistlines and receding hairlines.
Challenging your brain could be one way of preserving your recollections – though the value of commercial brain training apps is debatable; some experiments seem to show that while people may become a whizz at the games on their screen, the improvements fail to transfer to daily life. But other, more traditional activities – like learning a musical instrument or a second language – do seem to have some protective benefits, at least on short-term recall. Ideally, it is probably best to keep your brain active throughout your life, well before you begin to approach your dotage.
Exercise and a healthy diet are also thought to offer some protection against dementia. As can an active social life – since regular contact with other people is also thought to excite our neurons and preserve our synapses. Ensuring that you regularly get a good night's sleep helps too.
Of course, nothing can guarantee health and vitality in old age. But these few simple measures might give you the best possible chances of preserving your wits against the ravages of time.
For more videos subscribe to the Head Squeeze channel on YouTube. This video is part of a series produced in partnership with the European Union’s Hello Brain project, which aims to provide easy-to-understand information about the brain and brain health.
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