Country Living (UK)
STROLL DOWN MEMORY LANE
Country walks and clean thinking could be your route to a more switched-on mind. Here’s how to hold that thought
How country walks could help promote a more switched-on mind
There was once a time when the mere act of agreeing to do something was enough to log it into my memory. Now, I rely on Alexa (even then, I’m not making a promise) and I have lost count of the number of times I’ve turned bottles of white wine into Slush Puppies when I’ve left them in the freezer to chill and forgotten about them.
I’m not alone in noticing fuzzier thinking either. Friends talk about going blank when trying to remember their card PIN or forgetting where they’ve parked the car. But while these brain fogs and mild memory lapses are common as we get older (particularly during the perimenopause and menopausal years), they are not inevitable. What happens to our brains as we age is complex and varies from person to person but, broadly speaking, brain function can be split into two. There’s the mechanics (responsible for things like information processing and memory) that can gradually slow with age, and there’s the brain’s pragmatic functions (drawing upon accumulated knowledge and experience to make decisions), which actually improve with age. This new wisdom we’re clocking up with every birthday is one of the reasons why Dr Daniel Levitin, a leading neuroscientist and author of The Changing Mind, believes it’s possible to hold mental deterioration in check. “While memory, reasoning and speed can slightly slow with age, our mental vitality
need not,” he says. In fact, it’s unlikely to be our minds tripping us up but our increasingly hectic lives, a culture of multitasking and a plugged-in society. “Busy is good for the brain, but overwhelmed is not,” Dr Levitin says. “When you’re at a high level of demand and are stretched thin, you may have a feeling of being less mentally sharp, but chances are you’re not losing your keys because of your memory, but because you weren’t paying attention to where you put them.”
The problem is that we’re increasingly doing one thing while thinking of (or being distracted by) another. “With age, the prefrontal cortex changes in ways that make us more distractible – and distractibility is the enemy of memory encoding,” Dr Levitin says. “Short-term memory depends on you actively paying attention to something, but if you start thinking about something else, even momentarily, or are distracted by your phone pinging, this can disrupt your short-term memory. Our ability to automatically restore this memory declines slightly every decade after the age of 30.” The answer? Monotasking rather than multitasking and being more mindful of the distractions posed by smartphones and other tech. Dr Levitin suggests practising good digital hygiene: only checking emails a few times a day at times you decide and switching off other tech alerts, so you stay engaged with the task at hand. “Many of us need to step back and think, ‘What can I do about distractions?’ rather than, ‘What can I do about memory?’” he says.
We also need to get more involved in what we need to remember because, according to Dr Levitin, passively listening is a sure-fire way to forget something. “We tend to remember best the things that we pay the most attention to,” he says. “Actively using information, generating and regenerating it, engages more areas of the brain than merely listening. For example, if you forget names, saying, ‘Nice to meet you, Tom. Have you read any good books lately, Tom?’ could boost your recall by 50 per cent with very little effort. Writing things down and making lists are also useful, and there’s a growing body of research to suggest that drawing what you need to remember forces your brain into a deeper kind of processing, too.”
RESET YOUR INTERNAL CLOCK
Looking after your chronobiology – the set of internal clocks that regulate various cycles of attention, energy, restoration
Busy is good for the brain, but overwhelmed is not. When you’re stretched thin, you may feel less mentally sharp
and repair that our brains and bodies go through – is also key. “When these are not functioning properly, neurons degenerate, cell metabolism is compromised, and the body’s normal system of cellular repair is disrupted,” Dr Levitin says. The cornerstones of good chronobiology are diet, sleep and staying physically active.
Exercising regularly improves blood flow to the brain, which keeps nerve cells healthy and supplied with oxygen. But while walking or running on a treadmill is good, taking a walk outside, particularly one in nature, is better. “Walking on an unpaved trail outdoors requires you to make hundreds of micro adjustments to foot pressure, angle and pace, and to adapt to new things, and this can make an enormous difference in fending off cognitive decline,” Dr Levitin says. A top tip to help with this? Before you’re about to learn something new, do something active – whether that’s going for a brisk walk or an energising yoga class: “When you get your heart rate up just before a mental task, you prime the brain with increased blood flow, which creates an enriched setting for mental activity.”
A balanced, nutrient-rich diet is also vital for brain health, and there’s growing evidence that suggests gut microbiome may also play a role. “We already know that serotonin is important for mood, memory and anxiety, and it turns out that 90 per cent of the serotonin in the body resides in the gut,” Dr Levitin says. “Kefir, yogurt and other fermented milk products containing probiotics could have a positive effect on mood and the brain’s emotional centres.”
Don’t underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep either. “It’s only recently that we’ve begun to fully appreciate the enormous amount of cognitive processing that happens when we’re asleep,” Dr Levitin says. “Consolidation of memories takes place, alongside problem solving and emotional processing.” Go to bed at the same time every night as much as possible and wake up at the same time every morning – even on weekends. “Even a slight change to your schedule can affect memory and alertness for days,” Dr Levitin continues.
STRETCH YOUR MIND
There’s a wave of research that suggests meditation can also help lift the brain fog. “It involves maintaining attention to your immediate experience in the moment, and away from distractions and mind wandering, and this can make your brain more efficient,” Dr Levitin says. “In research, long-term meditators show structural changes in the brain, but even brief meditation reduces fatigue and anxiety, and increases processing and working memory. In many cases, these benefits last even after meditation practice has stopped.” So, each day, take a few minutes to bring yourself back to the present, focus on your breathing and relax. Your mind will work better for it.
Making time for relationships – for your partner, friends, family, and to extend your social circle with people both younger and older than you – is also important. “Studies have found that a bigger predictor than cholesterol level at age 50 for health at age 80 is the quality of your relationships, with those having people who they can count on in their time of need retaining sharper memories for longer,” Dr Levitin says. “Social interaction – being around others – activates nearly every part of our brains and uses relatively advanced cognitive operations.”
So spend more time with others and you might find you’re less likely to forget their birthdays (and the bottle of wine you put in the freezer to help celebrate them).