Listen up people, today we’re talking the brain at 40. If you’ve been forgetting names, words, and generally feeling a bit all over the shop then there is a good reason why. Despite the fact that many of us think that our brains will become geriatric at 70, brain ageing actually starts at 40 – gulp! Scientists report that after age 40, brain tissue shows genetic changes that may contribute to the aging process, including cognitive decline. This is why you couldn’t win a memory game even if your life depended on it.
So as I write this – and you read this – our brains are probably shrinking – along with their capabilities. What a scary thought! So are we to just submit to this, or is there anything we can do to throw on the breaks here in our 40s?
Thankfully neuroscientist Dr Jack Lewis and Adrian Webster – authors of the 2nd edition of Sort Your Brain Out – have some rather excellent tips to share to help your brain at 40 be the best it can. Read on for their top 10 Brain Optimisation Principles (BOPs) which include the core things to focus on if you want to get more out of your brain on a daily basis.
10 Brain Optimisation Tips for the brain at 40
BOP 1: Prioritise your sleep
The reason sleep is so important for our brains is that it’s when all the repair and maintenance work gets done. Each night we go through several sleep cycles of alternating deep and dream sleep. Deep sleep is when our brains accelerate the rate at which the toxins that build up over the course of each day are removed. Dream sleep is when our brains make temporary memories more permanent and, importantly, when the negative emotions attached to any emotionally-upsetting events are stripped away. If we only get 4-7 hours of sleep per night, rather than the 8 hours that is optimal for most adults, we miss out on the max dose of anxiety-reducing dream sleep because those dreaming parts of the sleep cycle last longer during the second half of the night.
BOP 2: Exercise daily
When we do 30 mins of moderate intensity exercise every day (or 60 mins of intense exercise every other day) our muscles release powerful chemicals known as myokines. These travel up to the brain in the bloodstream where they trigger release of another substance, which causes more new brain cells to be born. These extra brain cells are generated in the hippocampus, an area critical to memory, navigation and even imagining the future. Daily exercise even re-energises the older brain cells in our hippocampus. Brains of retirees who were vigilant in taking plenty of exercise during middle age are always in better nick than those who never quite got round to it. Getting in the habit of taking more exercise now pays huge dividends, both immediately and many decades later.
BOP 3: Meditation Changes Brains
Much evidence has accumulated in the neuroscience literature supporting the idea that 20 mins of daily mindfulness meditation improves your physical health, mental well-being and enhances your cognitive performance. After just a week of daily sessions your ability to focus improves. After a fortnight, measurable changes have taken place in white matter (brain wires) in areas involved in taking an objective, “helicopter view” on life. After a month, grey matter becomes denser – signifying more connections between the brain wires involved in anxiety-reducing reflection. If you want to be sure you get some meditation done every day, the best time to do it is first thing in the morning.
BOP 4: Be master not slave to technology
Many people immediately pick up their phone as soon as they have an idle moment, but this robs them of the opportunity to daydream. It’s well-known that we only get our Eureka! moments or have personal breakthroughs when we let our minds wander and mull things over properly. Consequently, filling every moment of the day with stimulation, from the moment you wake up until you get into bed at the end of the day, is against your best interests. Apps are usually designed to grab your attention and keep you engrossed for as long as possible, displacing time you could be spending doing something much more rewarding.
BOP 5: Collect more hobbies
Hobbies are vastly under-rated. They are a brilliant way to find flow. Flow describes a brain state of being actively engaged with what you’re doing; where you feel challenged, but not too much. Absorbed by a series of tasks that are not too hard, not too easy, but just right in the difficulty level. The benefit of being in flow is that you are completely in the present moment and therefore not thinking about stressful events of the past or future. And the more hobbies you enjoy pursuing, some indoor, some out, the more options are available to you when you need to reduce your stress levels. Reading, playing chess or bridge and dancing are all hobbies known to help us hold onto our marbles well into old age.
BOP 6: Get yourself connected
As we get older many people start to think of friends as nice to have, but not essential. But for an incredibly social creature like the human, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Feeling like we have secure, reliable social connections with a few other people is extremely important for physical and mental health. Socially connected people live longer and suffer fewer psychological problems – like depression, anxiety and personality disorders – than those who feel socially isolated. How to slowly but surely increase your social network? See BOP7…
BOP 7: Offer to help other people
There is a natural inclination shared by humans all over the planet: if one person helps another, they’ll actively seek opportunities to repay the favour; or find some other way of showing their gratititude. Owing a debt is uncomfortable. Mutual cycles of helping are key to developing trust. Trust cements all worthwhile social connections. Of course, not everyone repays favours. But by showing a general willingness to help, friendships naturally develop when you help the right people – those who always repay a favour.
BOP 8: Eat for two (trillion)
There are trillions of bacteria in our gut – often referred to as the microbiome. Recent research has shown that what we feed our microbiome has a tremendous impact on how we feel. When thinking about what to have for dinner it’s important to consider what your gut bacteria like to eat because they actually create chemical byproducts that our brains use. While our gut enzymes can’t digest fibre, our gut bacteria can. They produce a chemical byproduct that travels up to our brain to produce feelings of being full sooner rather than later. So getting plenty of fibre in your diet on a daily basis, in the form of fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains, makes you feel fuller faster, reducing calorie intake.
BOP 9: Avoid processed foods wherever possible
Processed food has a longer shelf life, which is convenient, but is almost always higher in fat, sugar, salt and preservatives than freshly prepared food. Why? Because the same stuff that makes natural food go off is what tastes good (and what your gut bacteria would get to work on to produce all sort of useful vitamins and minerals that our brains can use to help our brains work better). To make processed foods last longer, all the healthy tasty stuff that might make it go off quickly is removed, leaving food that tastes so bland and horrible the only way the manufacturers can get us to want to eat it is to pack it full of salt, sugar and fat. Prepare food from fresh ingredients and you’ll instantly be reducing your intake of salt, sugar and fat; all of which are bad for brain health in excess.
BOP 10: Practice time-restricted feeding
Being overweight in middle age damages the white matter (wire-like brain cells that send electrical messages from A to B). In scans, these brains look like the brain of someone ten years older, but with a body mass in the healthy range. One of the best ways to shed excess fat is to get in the habit of time-restricted feeding, i.e. getting the whole day’s eating done in just 10-12 hrs per day. It really helps bodies to burn fat stored under skin and around internal organs. That’s because our bodies only start using up fat when all the available glucose in the bloodstream (and storage) have been used up. And that only happens if you eat breakfast at least 12+ hours after your last sip or nibble of a sweet treat the night before (NB beer, wine and milk all contain sugar!).
For more detail on all these topics and much, much more, the brand new second edition of Sort Your Brain Out; Boost Your Performance, Manage Stress and Achieve More, 2nd Edition by Jack Lewis and Adrian Webster (published by Capstone) is now available in all good bookshops; both on the high street and online.