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How to keep mentally sharp

13 February 2015

Keeping mentally sharp is very important for people in professions such as lawyering.

Staying at the top of your game cognitively requires some attention. It won’t just continue to happen unless you take some steps, most of which are relatively simple.

Those who have aspirations for an Olympic gold medal will go into training and often onto special diets so they can reach the top of their game. And there will be things that they avoid in their quest for success.

A similar process can help us all stay mentally sharp. Here are a series of steps you can take.

Avoid brain numbing activities

There are a number of activities that can not only make you numb and tired, but can also destroy brain cells and the linkages within your brain. While brain cells get damaged and our brains can even shrink as we age, there are activities that can speed up the process (just as there are things we can do to slow the process down).

Over indulgence in alcohol is one that will speed up cognitive deterioration. In fact, a person does not even have to have a very high alcohol intake before brain damage can occur.

One product that many of us consume on a regular basis can have a similar effect on brain function. That is sugar.

“Eating a lot of sugar or other carbohydrates can be hazardous to both brain structure and function,” Scientific American stated in an article entitled Sugar May Harm Brain Health, published on 12 June 2014.

The article quoted a study published in Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology in October 2013. The study title was “higher glucose levels associated with lower memory and reduced hippocampal microstructure”.

This should not be a surprise to anyone who has experienced what I call the “after Christmas dinner effect”, where your brain and body have slowed down and you feel very sleepy. What you have done is ramp up your blood sugar levels.

There is also another reason to cut those post-meal sugar peaks, particularly for lawyers who seem more prone than most occupations to depression.

Sugar consumption in population studies have been shown to have a close link with major depression. (Westover AN, Marangell LB. “A cross-national relationship between sugar consumption and major depression?” Depress Anxiety, 2002;16(3):118-20).

Other brain numbing activities to be aware of are things like watching too much television. And no, it’s not just the word of parents talking to their children saying this. It has research backing.

For example, experiments conducted by researcher Herbert Krugman (“Brain wave Measures of Media Involvement,” Journal of Advertising Research 11.1 (1971): 3-9) showed that while viewers are watching television, the right hemisphere is twice as active as the left.

That’s not so good for a number of reasons, including the fact that it’s the left brain that handles the organisation, analysis and judgment of incoming information. It is also a neurological anomaly.

So much for some key things not to do. What about activities we can do to hone the edge of our cognitive abilities?

Get moving

I’ve long loved the Latin proverb mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body).

Physical exercise benefits our brains in a range of ways. As it lifts our heart rate, it pumps more oxygen to our brains. It also helps provide a nourishing environment for the growth of brain cells while at the same time stimulating growth of new connections between cells in a wide array of important cortical areas of the brain.

Among the research backing this is the study by P D Tomprowski, Effects of acute bouts of exercise on cognition, which showed that up to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise facilitated specific aspects of information processing.

Exercise also drops stress hormones and can reduce or even eliminate depression.

Research has also shown that exercise can lead to more brain cell growth in the area of the hippocampus (The antidepressant effect of running is associated with increased hippocampal cell proliferation, A Bjōnebekk, A A Mathé and S Brené).

It is important, as with so many things in life, not to overdo it, however. When people exercise to the point of dehydration, the effects on the brain start becoming negative.

Eat well

Many of us have heard about “super foods”. As far as our brains are concerned, there are some foods that protect our brains and can even generate new brain cells.

One of the “super foods” our brain needs are healthy fats and fatty acids. It is important to get Omega 3 fats and excellent sources of these are non-farmed fish, walnuts and flaxseeds. When it comes to land animals and farmed fish, it depends on their diets. As a general rule, grass-fed land animals will have higher Omega 3 fats.

Our brains also need Omega 6 fats. However, most of us are already getting as much of these as we need, and usually too much of them in relation to our Omega 3 intake.

Many of us will have heard of the “Mediterranean diet”. One of the keys to that diet is the amount of virgin olive oil, which is also extremely beneficial for our brain health.

We also need high amounts of antioxidants for our brains to function properly. That is where vegetables, in particular, and fruit and berries are a very important part of our diets.

In a nutshell, a good diet should include high quality protein (including fats), vegetables and fruit. And there’s a good case for snacking on nuts, such as walnuts.

Brain training

There are very many activities we can do to help “train” our brains. Continuing education is one. The MacArthur Foundation Study on Successful Aging, a long-term study of aging in America, found that education level was the strongest predictor of mental capacity as people aged. The more education, the more likely an individual was to maintain his or her memory and thinking skills.

Playing number games, or even using your brain rather than a calculator, memorising things such as song lyrics, learning a new language, card and board games, learning a new craft and similar mental activities all help not only sharpen our mental functioning, but also help us to keep it at a higher level for longer as we age.

Intellectual enrichment and learning all stimulate the brain to make more connections, and the more connections you brain has, the better it works.

Social activity

Speaking of connections, having good connections with other people also enhances both our mental skills and our memory. That’s yet another thing that friends (and family and colleagues) are for.

It is also another good reason to continue the collegiality that is one of the hallmarks of the legal profession in such events as bar dinners and other Law Society activities.

To conclude, the secret to keeping mentally sharp is all about leading a healthy life which incorporates food that our brains need and being physically, mentally, socially (and probably spiritually) active.

Last updated on the 17th March 2016