Good thinking

Senior couple solving a crossword puzzle

Senior couple solving a crossword puzzle - Credit: Getty Images/Ingram Publishing

Professor Anne Marie Minihane of the nutrition department at Norwich Medical School, at the University of East Anglia, discusses how to retain brain function as we age.

“Every man desires to live long, but no man would be old”, said Jonathan Swift in 1706 . . . in particular, it seems, with regard to have an aged brain.

We live in an era obsessed with age-related cognitive decline, memory loss and dementia risk, which could lead the more pessimistic among us to believe that a complete loss of our mental faculties is an inevitable part of ageing. But of course, this is not the case. The majority of us live to a ripe old age with only a modest decline in our grey matter function, such as retrieving information, or remembering names. In fact, as we age, we often improve in other cognitive areas, such as vocabulary and other forms of verbal knowledge, and eventually learn the appropriate use of “principle” versus “principal”!

A question I am often get asked is: Can dietary or other lifestyle changes help retain brain function?

The answer is a very big yes; fortunately, these actions also benefit a person’s overall health. These changes include:

Regular exercise. “Old minds are like old horses; you must exercise them if you wish to keep them in working order” (John Adams, circa 1769). This should include both regular physical exercise and intellectual stimulation. Current physical activity guidelines suggest that adults partake in five 30-minute moderate-intensity aerobic activities, such as cycling, fast walking or energetic dancing, every week. Always remember that some is better than none, and more is better than less. Engaging in intellectually stimulating activities such as committing to lifelong learning, reading, writing, puzzles/crosswords, staying curious and engaged in world events and maintaining close social ties with family, friends, and the community are also hugely helpful in maintaining mental acuity.

Stop smoking. Smoking is pretty much bad for everything, except arguably the Exchequer.

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Moderate alcohol consumption, and no more than 14 and 21 units (for instance, a small glass of wine, single shot of spirits or half a pint of beer) per week for men and women, respectively, and not all at once.

Keeping hydrated.

Managing your stress and getting a good night’s sleep.

Maintaining your BMI kg/m2 in the 18‒25 range.

Eating a healthy and balanced Mediterranean-style diet, which should include at least five portions (80g is a portion) of a range of fruits and vegetables (including fresh juices, smoothies and soups) per day; fish twice per week, to include one portion of oily fish; whole-grains and nuts (in moderation as they have a high calorie content), while restricting intakes of high-calorie nutrient-poor foods like confectionaries and sugar-sweetened beverages.

At Norwich Medical School at the UEA, we have a programme of research examining dietary strategies to promote memory and healthy brain ageing. If you have noticed a decline in your memory over the past two to three years, are worried about it, and would be interested in being a volunteer on one of our studies, please contact Dr Mike Irvine or Rachel Gillings on 01603 593767; email

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