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Stay Sharp

Maintaining Mental Function in Later Life

Ian Robertson Professor of Psychology,Trinity College Dublin.

Extracted from: Stay Sharp with the Mind Doctor by Ian Robertson, London:Vermilion.


Is your memory not what it used to be? We all notice how our memory gets worse with age. Neuroscience research now shows that this is not inevitable and we can now keep our brains healthy to match the increasing health of our over-fifties bodies. Modern neuroscience helps our brains catch up with our bodies so we can live a fulfilled prime of life.

Medical advances have created a fourth age for humankind between middle and old age - this is the new prime of life. Biologically and psychologically, old age need not now begin until the eighties for many people.This leaves 30 years, roughly age 50 to 80, a period much longer than youth, for which we have to invent a whole new way of living.

Diet, exercise, mental stimulation, mental training and levels of stress are all key factors in determining whether your brain can stay healthy enough for you to enjoy life in the new prime between 50 and 80. Neuroscience researchers have made important discoveries that will help keep our brains functioning optimally.

One recent major study of training for the over sixties showed that cognitive exercise and mental stimulation can reduce cognitive age in over-60's by 14 years. In my own research I have shown how it is possible to improve mental organisation, memory and concentration in the over sixties.

Our brains are the key to using this second youth between 50 and 80 well. Hearts and livers can be repaired and transplanted, many cancers cured or tamed. With good food and the best therapies, the biggest remaining obstacle to long life is the fitness of brain and mind.

Your Age & Your Unconscious

Most of what we do is shaped largely by unconscious habits, thoughts and feelings - including how old we behave and feel.

Take this study by the eminent social psychologist John Bargh. Volunteers came to his office to take part in a study. Half of the volunteers had to unscramble mixed-up sentences, in which words related to conventional stereotypes about the elderly were included - words such as wrinkle, grey, wise. The other volunteers sorted sentences with no such words.

The volunteers then left the room: as far as they were concerned, the study was finished. But in fact it had only begun. Professor Bargh videoed them as they walked from his office to the elevator to measure how fast they walked.The results were startling.

The volunteers who had sorted the sentences including words linked to ageing walked slower than those who had read the other material. But they had absolutely no awareness that they were doing so. The mere fact that their brains had been exposed to ideas and thoughts about old age affected how fast they walked.

If just a few minutes of such reading can change how you behave, imagine what the effects of decades of thinking old, and immersing ourselves in experiences linked to age can be.

Learning & Your Brain

Learning and stimulation not only stimulate new connections between brain cells, they also stimulate the growth of new cells. We also know that people who have to use their brains a lot in their work later in life have better mental functions than those who do not. In short: learning, together with challenge and change, literally grow your brain, that's why they are essential ingredients for staying sharp over fifty.

Exercise & the Brain

Physical exercise has hugely positive effects on the brains of people over fifty.The longer you have kept physically fit, the more marked the effects. Four months of modest aerobic training with a group of over 60's found improvements in a number of key mental abilities. A control group who went through a strength and flexibility programme didn't show the same improvements.

Over sixties who took part in a regular aerobic training programme over three years showed none of the drop in mental abilities that another control group of over sixties showed over that period.

It seems that aerobic exercise particularly helps a key region of your brain - the frontal lobes. The frontal lobes are key to mental sharpness because they are involved in our ability to organise ourselves, make decisions, show initiative, have a sense of humour, pay attention, and remember if we have told that story before we tell it again!

The frontal lobes are key to what makes us who we are.The problem is, this is the part of the brain that ageing attacks most. This is one reason why we tend to become forgetful, slow and prone to repeating ourselves in old age. But the good news is that aerobic exercise can prevent a lot of this happening.

It does this in a number of different ways. Exercise makes your brain generate a chemical called BDNF- Brain-derived neurotrophic factor. This acts like a fertilizer for new brain connections and new brain cells. Physical fitness also increases the amount of serotonin in the brain, which is not only a key brain chemical for positive mood, but also helps brain cells to proliferate. Exercise also causes new capillaries - tiny blood vessels - to sprout in the brain, increasing the nourishment, and hence survival, of brain cells and connections that might otherwise wither under the pressure of ageing. Scientists have also found that running boosts the growth of nerve cells: one study found that brains of mice that exercised had about 2.5 times more new nerve cells than sedentary mice.

In other words, for the over-fifties, exercise is a sort of "wonder-drug" that makes you more mentally agile, less forgetful and delays the loss of sharpness that would otherwise happen.

"You know - my memory just isn't what it used to be..."

It's very interesting to compare the brains of older and younger people as they try to memorise things.Take a list of words like bread, couch, carrot, milk, fish, apple, chair, shelf, table. Give this to a group of 20-year olds to memorise, and their brains will show a healthy surge of activity on the left side of their frontal lobe, as well as in the main memory centres of the brain deep in the middle, in a region called the hippocampus.

What happens in the brains of the 70-year olds? Well, for a start they won't be able to memorise long lists of words nearly as well as the 20-year olds. But why? A peek into what their brains are up to while they are memorizing gives us a clue.The 70-year olds don't switch on the left frontal lobe nearly as much as the younger volunteers, and this is a likely reason why they don't remember as well.

One of the reasons our memories let us down as we get older, then, is that for whatever reason we don't attack the information with the same brain vigour that we did when we were young.To speculate, it might be that we have got out of the habit of learning new things, and the brain circuits - in the left frontal lobe for instance - have become relatively inactive through disuse.

So, what can we do to keep our memories in good shape as we get older? Well, the obvious way to do this is to learn to 'attack' the things you have to remember by sifting, sorting and linking them to other things you already know.This is called 'depth of encoding', a principle discovered by the eminent cognitive psychologist Fergus Craik, of the University of Toronto.

He and his colleagues have conclusively shown that the more you mentally process things you have to remember, the better you remember them.This is very likely in part because mental processing of this type activates the frontal lobes, which in turn strengthen connections between different items stored in your memory banks in the temporal lobes.

How Memory Training Works

Memory training works in different ways. By using more than one method, you make it easier to remember and store new information. For instance, you might learn to use mental images to help store information.