Brain health: six key questions answered | Dementia

The pandemic has led to a rapid acceleration in cognitive decline among the over-50s, regardless of whether or not they contracted Covid-19, and had a “real lasting impact” on their brain health, a study has found. So how do you know how healthy your brain is and what can you do to improve your brain health?

Brain function slowing down is a natural part of ageing. “This process starts in mid-life and everyone experiences this differently,” says Prof Anne Corbett, professor of dementia research at the University of Exeter and the Protect study lead.

“Look out for lapses in memory, difficulty concentrating and problem-solving or changes in language or behaviour that are unusual for you and which carry on for several months. Friends and family are often the first to notice these changes.”

Good brain health means keeping the brain working properly, according to Dr Susan Mitchell, head of policy at Alzheimer’s Research UK.

“One of the main signs that our brain health is in decline is a change in how well we can cope with our day to day lives,” Mitchell said. “This includes things like our ability to concentrate, our motivation, navigation, memory, and sleep.”

How can you measure your own brain health?

“Brain health is not something we can measure as an exact science,” says Mitchell. “Doing regular tasks that stimulate our brains, and tracking our ability to cope with those tasks is one possible way that we could measure brain health.”

Everyone’s brain is different so there is no one-size-fits-all quick test, adds Corbett. “We can look for subtle changes over time using sensitive computerised tests like in our Protect study.

“At home you can also use brain training games to test yourself, although these won’t give you a clear answer about your health. Your GP can also assess your brain function.”

What are the likely reasons for the decline in brain health in over-50s during the pandemic?

Researchers don’t know for sure, says Corbett. “But we know that some key factors were linked, including people doing less exercise, drinking more alcohol, increased depression and loneliness, and these all increased in lockdown.”

Could a decline in brain health just be a result of natural ageing?

Absolutely. Everyone experiences some natural decline as they age. “Much like the rest of our body, our brain does age,” says Mitchell. “This means it does not function as it did when we were younger.

“However, there are a range of health and lifestyle factors which can influence good brain health.

“These factors include social isolation and regular exercise, both of where were significantly affected by the pandemic. If you do notice that you are having trouble doing things you used to find easy, you can talk to your doctor who can help find out why.”

What can you practically do to improve brain health?

“The best ways to protect your brain include regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, managing medical conditions such as depression, high blood pressure and hearing loss, and keeping your brain active through brain training and social interaction,” says Corbett.

Eating a balanced diet is also key, says Mitchell.

How likely is it that a decline in brain health is a sign of dementia?

Poor brain health in isolation isn’t necessarily a sign of dementia. But having poor brain health in midlife could mean you have a higher risk of developing dementia later in life.

“If you feel that you are experiencing signs of dementia it is important to talk to your doctor,” says Mitchell.

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