The Age-Well Project: why keeping the brain busy is important as we get older

— by Alyson Walsh


As we get older we need mental stimulation more than ever. The good news is it can be a lot of fun, and unleash creative opportunities, say the authors of The Age-Well Project, Susan Saunders and Annabel Streets. Keeping your brain busy, challenged and curious in midlife – and beyond – helps boost cognitive reserve. The term applies to the brain’s ability to circumnavigate neurodegenerative disease, including the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s. We build this reserve by giving our brains a work out: getting creative, embracing novelty and reading books. What’s not to like?

The Age-Well Project is an informative, highly readable handbook covering easy ways to stay healthy and happy as we get older. From diet and exercise to staying social, sleeping well and buying a dog, the authors offer sound practical advice backed up by (but not bogged down by) science and medical research. Here’s what they say about keeping the brain busy:

Do something creative

Some of the world’s great artistic creatives, from Doris Lessing to Georgia O’Keeffe and Pablo Picasso to E. M. Forster have lived well into their nineties without succumbing to dementia. What was their secret? A recent study found that creative thinkers are more likely to engage disparate networks across the brain, building new neural pathways as they fire up. Creative types are also open to new ideas and have a positive attitude to change, something referred to as cognitive flexibility. According to one study, a flexible mind is one of the most important tools to fend off cognitive decline as we age. Mental flexibility allows us to manage stress, seeing challenges as opportunities rather than threats, which in turn builds cognitive reserve. You don’t need to have dedicated your life to art to reap the benefits. Studies have linked drama and dance to improved cognition, and musical training to improved neural connectivity. The brain, it seems, relishes the imaginative challenge of making art. So if you’ve always wanted to try sculpture, pottery, photography, acting, composing or poetry, find a class and have a go. It will add to your social enrichment and your cognitive reserve, without a single side effect.

Embrace novelty: Try something new

The double bonus of trying something creative is that the brain loves novelty. It creates new neural pathways when we experience something new or different, which improves memory and builds that cognitive reserve. A study published in Neuron found that the parts of our brain known as the substantia nigra and the ventral tegmental area (NS/VTA) – which play important roles in learning and memory – are activated by new images, but only positive ones (which is why we often recall holidays so clearly).Our brains, like our muscles, need stretching – and embracing novelty is the best way to do this. Professor Michael Hornberger, Director of Ageing at Norwich Medical School and Head of Dementia Research at UEA told us, ‘The brain works harder when it’s exposed to new things. Once we’ve learnt something it becomes a skill and the brain doesn’t engage in the same way.’For us, it’s been really important to know that you don’t have to be good at something novel to benefit. It’s while fumbling new dance steps or stumbling through a French class that our brain is working hardest. Our Age-Well Project led us to try a wide variety of novel experiences – boxing lessons, bonsai meditation, salsa dancing, laughter yoga, art classes, and – of course – writing a book about healthy ageing! Each new experience stretched our brains and helped us build new neural pathways.


Annabel Abbs (left) and Susan Crook Saunders Photo: Charlie Hopkinson

Read a book: Why do readers live longer?

Settling down with a good book offers so much more than an few moments of relaxation. A Yale study of nearly 4000 over-fifties found that reading books (rather than newspapers and magazines) increased longevity by almost two years. Those who read for more than 3.5hours a week were 23% less likely to die from all causes than those who did not. The study authors identified two cognitive processes which could create a survival advantage. Firstly, reading books involves ‘a slow, immersive process’, cognitive engagement in which we make imaginative connections, ask questions or absorb new vocabulary, for example. Secondly, books ‘promote empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence’, all processes which give us a great chance of survival. We love reading and feel that books, particularly novels, alleviate stress by plunging us in to a world other than our own. And we weren’t at all surprised to discover that reading really can help us sleep (almost every sleep expert advocates reading as a way to fall asleep).Scientists believe the process of reading replicates the eye movements we make duringREM sleep, precisely the time we lay down memories.


The Age-Well Project is available HERE.

Annabel and Susan blog about Ageing-Well HERE. And are doing a Guardian Masterclass in London in early January, details HERE.

And on social media:
INSTAGRAM: @agewellproject
FACEBOOK: @theagewellproject
TWITTER: @age_wellproject

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