Doctor double act can help you live healthier for longer in their anti-ageing series for the Mail51 min read

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TV doctor Chris van Tulleken is explaining how he and his other half underwent counselling last year.

‘Couples’ counselling, like marriage guidance, I guess,’ he says. ‘We just felt it would be a good thing to do.’

But it wasn’t his marriage that was in trouble (everything with journalist wife Dinah, the mother of his one-year-old daughter, is tickety-boo); it was his relationship with his genetic other half. 

 Today in the Mail's pullout, the twins focus on anti-ageing your brain, and show you simple strategies to give it a boost — from telling you why you're becoming forgetful to revealing the techniques you can use to improve brain health and function

 Today in the Mail's pullout, the twins focus on anti-ageing your brain, and show you simple strategies to give it a boost — from telling you why you're becoming forgetful to revealing the techniques you can use to improve brain health and function

 Today in the Mail’s pullout, the twins focus on anti-ageing your brain, and show you simple strategies to give it a boost — from telling you why you’re becoming forgetful to revealing the techniques you can use to improve brain health and function

Yes, in the ‘spouse’ seat during counselling was Xand, his identical twin and fellow telly doctor.

It’s quite a revelation that these two — both contenders for the title of TV’s sexiest doctor, surely — have a relationship that might require them even to think of counselling.

The brilliant pair have emerged, in recent years, as the Ant and Dec of the medical broadcasting world and two of the most in-demand medical experts in the country.

Aged 40 (Xand is older by seven minutes), they are both eminently qualified doctors, Oxford-educated and experts in their fields. 

Chris has a PhD in molecular virology and a diploma from the London School of Tropical Medicine. Xand, whose Masters in public health comes from Harvard, is an authority on ebola. He has worked for the World Health Organisation and lectures all over the world.

Together, they provide accessible, quackery-free answers to health dilemmas.

Now they are launching an unmissable anti-ageing series in the Mail, starting today with an eight-page pullout, which will show you simple, science-backed ways to stay healthy, mentally sharp and looking and feeling your best.

This series is based on their latest BBC smash hit, The Twinstitute, which sees them taking 30 sets of identical twins and subjecting them to a barrage of tests as they try out various lifestyle changes — more of which later.

This series couldn’t be more timely: while life expectancy has generally risen over the years, many people’s healthy life expectancy ends at 64; after that, the risk of heart disease, dementia, stroke and cancers increases significantly. 

That means millions of us will spend the last fifth of our lives dogged by disease.

This is driving a growing field of research into ‘healthspan’; essentially improving not only people’s life expectancy, but the quality of life in those extra years.

The brilliant pair have emerged, in recent years, as the Ant and Dec of the medical broadcasting world and two of the most in-demand medical experts in the country [File photo]

The brilliant pair have emerged, in recent years, as the Ant and Dec of the medical broadcasting world and two of the most in-demand medical experts in the country [File photo]

The brilliant pair have emerged, in recent years, as the Ant and Dec of the medical broadcasting world and two of the most in-demand medical experts in the country [File photo]

Today in the Mail’s pullout, the twins focus on anti-ageing your brain, and show you simple strategies to give it a boost — from telling you why you’re becoming forgetful to revealing the techniques you can use to improve brain health and function.

Next week, they’ll be tackling stress, fitness and how to sleep better. Together, all four of the life-changing, free pullouts form a complete, medically-backed plan.

Not surprisingly, drug treatments are a key focus of healthspan researchers, but the emphasis should not exclusively be on more pills, suggests Chris. 

‘The pills many of us end up taking not only don’t work brilliantly, they won’t make you feel great.’

Tellingly, he adds, many of the drugs used to treat the over-50s ‘are a replacement for a good lifestyle’.

‘One of the saddest things in my career as a doctor was being in a large hospital, seeing so many old and lonely people with diseases that, for many, were probably lifestyle-related.’

If there is a single motive that drives their telly work — and informs their series for the Mail — it’s ‘helping people take control over their destiny’, says Chris.

‘While doctors can make a difference if you get a specific disease such as cancer, in terms of your lifespan and quality of life, the person who has real control is you,’ he explains.

One of the most compelling experiments on The Twinstitute involves two sets of twins taking up painting and pottery to test the benefits of learning a skill on cognitive function — with some stunning results: one twin, in her mid-60s, shaved ten years off her brain age. 

As a result, Chris and Xand are now taking up the piano (they tell you more about this in today’s supplement).

‘It’s easy to believe that our days of acquiring a new skill are over, but it’s never too late to learn,’ says Xand. ‘In themselves, doing these things is joyful, but they may have profound effects on the length and quality of our lives.’

Indeed, the brothers say joy is fundamental to ageing well.

For a while their paths seemed to diverge. They chose different specialisms, and Xand moved to the U.S. Then Chris got involved, by chance, in TV. He was giving medical support to a team of explorers when he was spotted by producers

For a while their paths seemed to diverge. They chose different specialisms, and Xand moved to the U.S. Then Chris got involved, by chance, in TV. He was giving medical support to a team of explorers when he was spotted by producers

For a while their paths seemed to diverge. They chose different specialisms, and Xand moved to the U.S. Then Chris got involved, by chance, in TV. He was giving medical support to a team of explorers when he was spotted by producers

The twins also made twins stay awake for 30 hours to test sleep deprivation, showing its effect on cognitive function and how to combat it; pitted other sets of twins against one another to see if short, hard bursts of activity were an effective way of exercising; and tested if mindfulness really combats stressful situations.

The results of these experiments — and more — are revealed in today’s and next week’s pullouts.

The Twinstitute is a programme that only the van Tullekens could have got away with presenting, insists Chris.

‘I’m uncomfortable with the idea of twins being used as guinea-pigs in scientific experiments,’ he says. ‘But with us being part of the tests, it’s more collaborative. I have a problem with scientists who aren’t twins doing this sort of thing.’

Xand interrupts (they are champion interrupters and correctors). ‘Obviously there are plenty of great twins researchers out there,’ he begins.

Chris isn’t having it: ‘No. I feel proprietorial about it.’

An audience with these two is quite an experience. To say they bicker is to put it mildly. Every third question involves them disagreeing. Even when they are agreeing, they manage to disagree. And this is after counselling?!

On the other hand, it’s rare to come across even ‘normal’ siblings who are this close. 

When Xand discovered, to his surprise, that he was going to be a dad, Chris was the first person he called. Xand knew Chris was going to propose to his wife before she did.

They do better than most trying to articulate what it is to be an identical twin.

‘Being a twin is not always easy. It’s complicated having someone else moving through the world with your character and your DNA,’ says Chris. 

‘When they have children, those children are your children. Xand’s son is biologically mine; my daughter is his daughter. It’s a weird thing in life to have a clone.’

Good weird or bad weird? Both, he says. ‘When Xand is not with me, I’m not fully present; there’s a whole other me who isn’t in the room. But when he is with me, it removes a little bit of me. I love having him around and he’s also my best friend, but it’s strange: like having another body that you’re not in control of.’

And there is something a little freak-show about how their lives are entwined. They both went to the private King’s College School in South-West London: nothing weird about that — but the same medical school?

They love to tell the story of how one senior doctor reacted when he discovered one of them, whom he expected to be alert on the wards, fast asleep — a classic case of mistaken identity.

For a while their paths seemed to diverge. They chose different specialisms, and Xand moved to the U.S. Then Chris got involved, by chance, in TV. He was giving medical support to a team of explorers when he was spotted by producers. 

He mentioned he had a twin who was also a doctor. You can imagine how excited the telly folk became.

Hilariously, their ‘twinness’ has been both a selling point and a hindrance. Presenting together is a nightmare. Xand was told to grow a beard because camera operators couldn’t tell them apart.

But everyone gets them muddled even when they are doing solo projects. Xand moans: ‘One reviewer called me Chris the whole way through his piece!’

Chris didn’t mind. ‘It was a good review. They used my picture.’ Their name is Dutch, but their parents are Canadian. Their father is an industrial designer; their mum a financier with a background in publishing. Both moved to London as students and went on to create what sounds like an extraordinary home life.

Their father provided the fun — and the blood and gore. ‘A lot of the stuff in our kids’ show comes from things we did with Dad,’ says Chris. ‘He would go to the butcher’s and buy us organs to do experiments on to teach us about our bodies.’

Today in the Mail's pullout, the twins focus on anti-ageing your brain, and show you simple strategies to give it a boost — from telling you why you're becoming forgetful to revealing the techniques you can use to improve brain health and function [File photo]

Today in the Mail's pullout, the twins focus on anti-ageing your brain, and show you simple strategies to give it a boost — from telling you why you're becoming forgetful to revealing the techniques you can use to improve brain health and function [File photo]

Today in the Mail’s pullout, the twins focus on anti-ageing your brain, and show you simple strategies to give it a boost — from telling you why you’re becoming forgetful to revealing the techniques you can use to improve brain health and function [File photo]

When their father brought home pig’s trotters, their mum showed them how to cook them. ‘Mum was great,’ says Chris. She worked in publishing as an editor and was an industrial designer and artist. 

She was a powerhouse, too, by the sound of it.

‘Mum wouldn’t mind me saying that she was the breadwinner,’ says Chris. ‘Dad was very funny and laid-back. Mum was — put it this way, she will give us notes on our sell-out West End show.’ 

He turns to his brother. ‘Is it true to say, Xand, that Mum is never quite satisfied? I think I could say that.’

Xand chuckles: ‘Mum will read my articles and say, ‘Why are you being so aggressive in your argument, why don’t you try this?’ ‘

Astonishingly, both still juggle media careers with medical ones. In Chris’s book, being a convincing TV doctor means being a practising one. ‘Otherwise, you don’t have a connection to the world you’re representing,’ he says.

So next summer Chris will have a break from TV to go back to the NHS — ‘and see what happens’.

The big difference in their lives comes with the domestic. Chris is settled in North London, with his family. Xand, who came back from the States a few years ago, is ‘single, as in unmarried’.

They have very different experiences of parenthood. Xand’s son Julian, nine, arrived when he was living in Canada. He’d had a fling with Julian’s mother, but was not in a relationship. Fatherhood came as a shock.

‘It was terrifying to me in a way that is hard to relate to now, because he is by far the best thing that has ever happened to me,’ he admits. 

He credits Julian’s mum with ‘making it easier than it might have been’. ‘Even phoning me and saying, ‘We are going to have a baby,’ was courageous. 

She could never have seen me again, said, ‘I’m better on my own,’ but she gave me the opportunity to be a dad.’

One might expect that Chris — the organised one, the consummate planner, the one who consistently complains about his brother being late and disorganised — would have hit the roof.

‘He could have,’ admits Xand. ‘But he didn’t. He said, ‘This child will have my DNA so it’s basically my baby too. We will get through this.’ He was brilliant.’

Xand and his son have a ‘brilliant’ relationship, but it is a long-distance one. ‘The thing I miss is the school run, like our dad did. I do feel envious of anyone who gets to see their kids every day.

‘Watching how much hard work it was for Chris and Dinah, it was also an odd thing of thinking, I’m glad I’m not him — but also, I wish I were him.’

The expert anti-ageing plan

When Zoe Spink was asked to allocate three hours a day to painting or making ceramic pots, she was horrified. 

The 66-year-old former beauty queen says art was her worst subject at school and the thought of trying to recreate a bowl of fruit on a canvas filled her with fear and embarrassment.

But after a month of diligently practising watercolour daubs and splodges, and numerous disastrous attempts with a potter’s wheel, she discovered to her surprise that not only was she finding the process of creativity deeply relaxing, but it seemed to be improving her memory and concentration, too.

In our Daily Mail series, we'll be looking at the things that can undermine our long-term health — from lack of sleep to stress — and show you how to tackle it, based on the best science. Today our focus is the brain [File photo]

In our Daily Mail series, we'll be looking at the things that can undermine our long-term health — from lack of sleep to stress — and show you how to tackle it, based on the best science. Today our focus is the brain [File photo]

In our Daily Mail series, we’ll be looking at the things that can undermine our long-term health — from lack of sleep to stress — and show you how to tackle it, based on the best science. Today our focus is the brain [File photo]

‘It wasn’t long before I noticed I was starting to think more quickly, and my ability to recall names and rattle off the items on my shopping list improved,’ says Zoe, who works as a model and lives in West Yorkshire.

A series of cognitive tests showed that her new creative hobby appeared to be rejuvenating her brain — in fact, in just one month her brain age (essentially her brain function test results compared with the typical result for her age) fell by ten years.

Zoe was one of 30 sets of identical twins who joined us in being subjected to a range of experiments for our new BBC2 series The Twinstitute, about health and well-being.

Why a healthy life beats a long one

There is nothing more ageing than illness — and some might well ask, what’s the point of living longer if the quality of those extra years is poor?

While life expectancy has generally risen over the years (it’s now 82.9 years for women, 79.2 for men), many people will only remain healthy up to 65, according to Age UK. 

After that, our risk of heart disease, dementia, stroke and cancers rises, leaving millions facing the last ten to 15 years of their lives crippled by ill health. 

That’s why, increasingly, experts are focusing on what’s known as health span: trying to boost the number of years we live in relatively good health.

Scientists are looking into the processes that govern age-related decline and our risk of diseases. 

The idea is that one day we will be able to ‘delay and compress the period of life when frailty and disability increase substantially’ and extend our healthy years, U.S. scientists wrote in the journal JAMA last year.

One way to do this could be with new drugs. For example, metformin, a diabetes drug, has been associated with increased health span. But it’s a mistake to think drugs hold the key.

A healthy, balanced diet with moderate, regular exercise and good sleep routines, and not smoking, are the best habits you can adopt to have a good health span.

The experiments included memory tests, physical challenges and diet-based trials, taking advantage of our matching DNA so we could act as guinea pigs in an effort to identify the best ways to improve physical and mental wellbeing.

Based on these fascinating experiments and many others that we have submitted our bodies to over recent years in the interests of science and research, we are launching an exciting new series on how to live well for longer, with pullouts today and next week in the Daily Mail.

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Life expectancy may be rising all the time, but who wants to see in their 100th birthday from their sick bed? In the quest for longevity, it is the quality of those extra years that matters. The question, then, is how to achieve this.

We are bombarded with ‘miracle’ life-extending solutions, treatments, ‘superfoods’ and advice, but how do you sift out the hype and hokum? That’s where the best science can help us find out what really works and what doesn’t.

In our Daily Mail series, we’ll be looking at the things that can undermine our long-term health — from lack of sleep to stress — and show you how to tackle it, based on the best science.

Today our focus is the brain.

Dementia has taken over from cancer as our greatest single health fear, as the numbers afflicted continue to rise.

It has become a ‘silent epidemic’ that affects an estimated 850,000 people in the UK, having overtaken heart disease as the leading cause of death in recent years.

So is there anything you can do to protect yourself from dementia, Alzheimer’s and other types of cognitive decline? Is doing puzzles the answer, or should you be packing your diet with brain ‘superfoods’?

Prescription to keep your brain young

It is known that protecting cognitive function involves combining a number of key lifestyle factors, including a healthy diet. 

Here, Dr Bradley Elliott, a psychologist from the University of Westminster, offers his tips:

Be more active

Try to be a little more active all the time. Walk faster. If your daily commute involves an escalator or lift, use the stairs. If it’s too much to do in one go, start by getting off one or two floors earlier at first, then increase it every week. Drive to work? Park farther away and enjoy the extra short walk.

Make things more challenging  

Take an everyday activity and make it a bit more challenging. Right-handed? Try brushing your teeth with your left hand for a week at a time. Can you button a shirt one-handed? Or put your socks on without sitting down? 

Learn a new skill 

Hand-eye co-ordination and reaction time decrease with ageing but respond well to training, no matter what your age is. Learn a new skill. 

Try juggling, pottery or simple sleight-of-hand magic. These types of complex movement are great for your visual-motor co-ordination (see page 6 of this supplement).

Learn a new cognitive skill  

Try something completely new and interesting — learning a foreign language, computer coding, crosswords or chess, perhaps.

Be social

Make a conscious effort to meet people and talk to them. Many of the tips listed above (be more active, learn new skills) probably all have an aspect of being social, and this may even be partly why they are good for us.

Cognitive decline was always thought to be an inevitable part of the ageing process, with our brains naturally changing and slowly deteriorating as the years pass. 

That is because the brain is composed of billions of connected brain cells — neurons — supplied by an intricate network of blood vessels, and over time its ability to function can deteriorate, as too can this essential blood supply network.

However, neuroscientists now know that it’s not the number of brain cells you have but the connections between those cells that determine your thinking power, or cognitive function.

Studies increasingly show that it is possible to improve memory, intelligence, creativity (even if you don’t think you have ever been the ‘creative type’) and even reverse age-related cognitive decline by keeping the brain healthy and working on strengthening those connections. 

In recent years, a huge market has sprung up with products, games, puzzles and techniques that claim they can boost our brainpower.

Recent studies show mixed results for these supposedly targeted brain-boosting methods. In fact, the strongest evidence appears to suggest that creative activities can improve cognitive abilities, especially when these activities involve visual and motor skills (that is, using your hands).

There is evidence that to prevent cognitive decline, you need to combine four things: a healthy diet, regular exercise, challenging your brain and socialising.

And it doesn’t seem as if it’s ever too late in life to start. Even someone in the early stages of cognitive decline may be able to improve their brain function by combining all four strategies.

So how does challenging your brain help, and what is the best type of activity for it? Read the following pages to find out! 

What’s your brain age? Take this quiz devised by a neurologist to find out  

1) I get seven to eight hours (or more) sleep each night. 

2) I eat five or more servings of fruit and vegetables each day.

3) I eat at least one serving of blueberries, raspberries or blackberries daily.

4) I eat baked or grilled fish high in omega-3 fatty acids at least three times a week.

5) I take fish oil supplements high in omega-3 fatty acids or flaxseed supplements at least five times a week.

6) I take a folic acid supplement and a daily multivitamin.

7) I take a low-dose aspirin each day.

8) I drink red wine or grape juice at least five times every week.

9) I exercise most days of the week for at least 30 minutes each time (a total of three hours or more of strenuous exercise weekly).

10) I read challenging books, do crossword puzzles or Sudoku, or engage in activities that require active learning, memorising, computation, analysis and problem-solving at least five times a week.

11) I have ‘longevity genes’ in my family, with members who have lived to 80 and older without memory loss.

12) My total cholesterol is below 5.2 mmol/l.

13) My LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol is below 3.3 mmol/l.

14) I am not obese (less than 1.4 st overweight for a woman; less than 2.1 st overweight for a man).

15) I eat a Mediterranean-style diet that is high in fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, beans, nuts and seeds, with olive oil as the chief source of fat and little red meat.

16) Instead of butter and margarine, I use olive oil and no trans-fat spreads.

17) I have never smoked cigarettes.

18) I have normal blood pressure.

19) I do not have diabetes (in the UK, it is thought that about one person in 17 has the condition). My blood sugar levels are within normal range.

20) I do not have metabolic syndrome (high blood sugar, high triglycerides, obesity and high blood pressure).

21) I do not have a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnoea, snoring or insomnia.

22) Daily uncontrolled stress is not a problem for me.

23) I have a strong support group and enjoy many activities with friends, colleagues and family members.

24) I have no problems with short or long-term memory.

25) I’m ready to prevent dementia and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve that aim.

Now add up your score

0-11 ‘True’ answers

You have an elevated risk of dementia and your brain age could be ten years older than your chronological age. Talk to your GP: are you doing all you can to manage your health problems?

12-14 You have a moderate risk of dementia and your brain age could be five years older than your chronological age.

15-19 Your brain age is about the same as your chronological age.

20-22 For your brain age, subtract ten years from your chronological age.

23-25 Subtract 15 years from your chronological age. Your dementia risk is extremely low.

From: healthybrainmd.com

Trick that improved my memory in five weeks

Twins Gay and Zoe Spink, 66, both models, tried two different approaches to improve their brain age: taking up a creative activity versus dietary changes. 

Zoe, a widow, lives near Leeds and has daughters Lara, 35, and Suzanne, 34, and a granddaughter, Esme. She says:

Our mum, Betty, had dementia from the age of 80 until she died at 87, so dementia has been a worry for both of us. 

Twins Gay (pictured, far left) and Zoe Spink, 66, both models, tried two different approaches to improve their brain age: taking up a creative activity versus dietary changes

Twins Gay (pictured, far left) and Zoe Spink, 66, both models, tried two different approaches to improve their brain age: taking up a creative activity versus dietary changes

Twins Gay (pictured, far left) and Zoe Spink, 66, both models, tried two different approaches to improve their brain age: taking up a creative activity versus dietary changes

I used to do Sudoku and crosswords to stay sharp but Gay and I wondered if there was something more we could do to protect ourselves.

When researchers at The Twinstitute suggested I take up painting and clay modelling, I was initially horrified as I was so bad at art at school. 

I was a disaster with the potter’s wheel, but with perseverance I did start to get better at painting — particularly abstracts. I loved experimenting with colour and as the month wore on, I noticed I was mentally sharper. 

When I did cognitive tests at the start of the experiment I’d found them difficult, but at the end I found them much easier. 

In fact, the researchers said my brain was ten years younger than it had been at the start. I couldn’t believe painting had made such a big difference.

Gay lives in Halifax with husband Paul, 65, a physiotherapist, and has three grown-up children and two grandchildren. She says:

For the experiment I was asked to eat a Mediterranean-style diet for five weeks. It’s the sort of food I eat anyway — lots of vegetables, chicken and salmon. 

The trial also involved some cooking lessons and exercise, but none of it was a dramatic lifestyle change for me and it didn’t make much difference to my brain age when I repeated the test at the end.  

The simple rule is to use it or lose it

Scientists think giving the brain regular ‘workouts’ increases its plasticity [File photo]

When it comes to brain ageing, the advice from experts is based on the same ‘use it or lose it’ principle that applies to physical health.

Taking up a creative pastime such as painting, or learning another language, can help to slow age-related mental decline and potentially ward off dementia.

But what actually happens to the brain when we take up a new, mentally stimulating hobby?

Scientists think giving the brain regular ‘workouts’ increases its plasticity — in other words, its ability to constantly rewire connections between the 100 billion or so neurons (the main type of brain cell) we have.

These connections — or neural pathways — allow neurons to communicate with each other and transmit the signals needed for the brain to be able to do its job as the body’s control centre.

Plasticity is vital for the human brain to be able to develop from infancy to adulthood, and recover from injury. As we grow, the brain assigns different tasks to different parts so that, for example, one area might be in charge of speech and language, while another oversees movement and limb control.

But it also has the capacity to re-route the signals carrying the instructions for these activities along different neural pathways, should one area become damaged.

This explains, for example, why stroke patients who lose the use of an arm or leg, because part of the brain was starved of oxygen-rich blood, can regain full or partial use of that limb with intensive physical rehabilitation. 

Doing exercises over and over again helps ‘rewire’ the brain so the damaged area is by-passed.

Why you start to forget

Scientists believe that as we age, there is a shift in the balance in which area of the brain is engaged as a memory is recalled [File photo]

New research has indicated that short and long-term memories are laid down at the same time in two different areas of the brain — the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex. 

Thus, the brain may create two versions of a memory at the same time.

While the short-term memory of the hippocampus is strong and vibrant, the memory laid down in the pre-frontal cortex remains ‘silent’, taking another two weeks to mature into a fully recollectable event. 

At the same time, the strength of the short-term memory appears to fade.

Scientists believe that as we age, there is a shift in the balance in which area of the brain is engaged as a memory is recalled. 

This may help to explain why our memories can become fuzzy. 

Mentally stimulating activities are thought to keep our neural pathways in good condition and ensure better cognitive health, allowing recovery from injury and, it is thought, from the damage that can lead to dementia.

Professor Nicholas Barnes, director of the neuropharmacology research group at the University of Birmingham, explains: ‘The more we use these pathways, the more efficient neurons are at communicating with each other.’

He says this kind of stimulation releases proteins called neurotrophic growth factors, which help neurons survive and reproduce.

‘By activating these pathways, we trigger the release of these neurotrophic factors,’ he says. ‘The more we use our brains, the more of them are released and the better the brain’s plasticity.’

But is there one hobby that benefits the brain more than any other? Dr Naheed Mukadam, a clinical research fellow at University College London’s Faculty of Brain Sciences, says: ‘There is evidence that cognitive stimulation from, for example, going to museums or doing crossword puzzles can be protective against dementia.

The social interaction that is involved in many of these beneficial activities is important, too, says Dr Duncan Banks, a lecturer in biomedical sciences at the Open University.

‘Loneliness is one of the strongest predictors of dementia,’ he says. ‘Social interaction with other people is crucial. But there is very little evidence that one particular activity is better than any other.’

Dr Banks believes the most important factor ‘by far’ in terms of retaining cognitive function is not mental activity but physical activity.

He says exercise is one of the most effective ways of stimulating the release of the growth factors needed to keep neurons alive and replicating.

Yet many people become gradually more sedentary as they grow older, and this coincides with a natural age-related decline in cognitive function.

‘One of the reasons people lose their short-term memory is because they don’t exercise enough,’ says Dr Banks.

Meals to boost mind, body and tastebuds

Longer-term studies do show that healthy diets can make a difference [File photo]

Longer-term studies do show that healthy diets can make a difference [File photo]

Longer-term studies do show that healthy diets can make a difference [File photo]

While there is some evidence to suggest that certain foods can affect brain function, many of the studies are small and were poorly conducted over short periods of time.

For instance, there is research that suggests oily fish boosts IQ and helps you concentrate, but the actual evidence for this specific benefit is weak. In fact, the idea of particular foods having superpowers is a bit of a myth.

The only robust evidence on the long-term effects of food and diet is that a healthy diet appears to be very good for your entire body — including your brain.

For The Twinstitute we asked dietitian Priya Tew to sift through the scientific studies to build a total diet that might be good for overall brain health.

Expert tip

Eat oily fish. People with lower levels of DHA, a type of omega 3 found in oily fish, tend to have reduced brain function and volumes, says psychologist Dr Bradley Elliott.

Our volunteers, including Zoe Spink’s twin sister Gay, followed Priya’s diet for five weeks but their test results showed no discernible lowering of brain age, almost certainly because they weren’t on the diet for long enough.

Longer-term studies do show that healthy diets can make a difference. In a study by the University of Illinois, published at the end of last year, MRI scans showed improved brain efficiency in older adults (aged 65-75) who ate a nutrient-packed Mediterranean-style diet.

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Priya Tew’s deliciously healthy meal plan is packed with everything your body needs for optimal health, with added ingredients thought to benefit brain health. 

Week one

Monday

Breakfast: Green tea porridge (see recipe) with pumpkin seeds and fresh fruit.

Lunch: Two tablespoons hummus with wholemeal pitta, tomatoes and watercress, plus fresh fruit.

Dinner: Wholemeal pizza base topped with anchovies, tomato puree, rocket and veg of your choice; plus salad.

Tuesday

Breakfast: Overnight oats with blueberries and chia seeds (see recipe).

Lunch: Egg salad sandwich using wholemeal bread, with lentil crisps and fresh mango.

Dinner: Sage pesto-topped salmon (see recipe), with roasted vegetables.

Wednesday

Breakfast: Greek yoghurt (full fat, unsweetened) with mixed berries (fresh or frozen) and walnuts; and a cup of green tea.

Lunch: Half an avocado on rye bread with tomatoes and salad; fresh melon.

Dinner: Griddled chicken breast on quinoa, with green vegetables.

Thursday

Breakfast: Weetabix with banana, walnut and pumpkin seeds; a cup of green tea.

Lunch: Two scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and cherry tomatoes on wholemeal bread; with an apple or orange.

Dinner: Steak and kidney pie with green veg and potatoes.

Friday

Breakfast: Egg and bacon with grilled tomato and wholemeal toast; a glass of berry juice.

Lunch: Smoked mackerel pâté on oatcakes with salad, plus carrot and cucumber crudites.

Dinner: Tomato risotto (see recipe), followed by Greek yoghurt (full fat, unsweetened) and tinned pineapple/apricots (in juice).

Saturday

Breakfast: Smoothie made from mixed berries, Greek yoghurt, banana and honey.

Lunch: Jacket potato with tinned sardines, cheese and green salad.

Dinner: Bean burgers (shop-bought) in a wholemeal bun, salad and guacamole (see recipe).

Sunday

Breakfast: Shredded Wheat with blueberries, linseeds and milk.

Lunch: Smashed avocado on wholemeal toast with tomatoes and pumpkin seeds.

Dinner: Cold salmon and mixed bean salad with watercress.

Week two

Monday

Breakfast: Two-egg omelette served with selected vegetables (tomatoes, courgette, onion and mushrooms).

Lunch: Salmon and avocado sushi (look for a variety wrapped in seaweed), with a side salad.

Dinner: Griddled chicken breast on quinoa, with green vegetables.

Tuesday

Breakfast: Spirulina smoothie (see recipe).

Lunch: Jacket potato with baked beans, cheese and a green salad.

Dinner: Tomato risotto (see recipe).

Wednesday

Breakfast: Egg, bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich on wholemeal bread, with mixed berry juice.

Lunch: Fresh tomato soup, cheese and sage scones.

Dinner: Vegetable curry with pulses (chickpeas or lentils) on brown rice.

Thursday

Breakfast: Shredded Wheat with blueberries, linseeds and milk.

Lunch: Eggs on wholemeal toast with spinach and avocado.

Dinner: Liver & bacon (see recipe), sweet potato and green veg.

Friday

Breakfast: Green tea porridge with pumpkin seeds and fruit.

Lunch: Half an avocado on rye bread with tomatoes and salad; fresh melon.

Dinner: Sage pesto-topped salmon (see recipe), roasted vegetables.

Saturday

Breakfast: Scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and tomatoes on a wholemeal bagel.

Lunch: Vegetable soup with pulses (beans/lentils).

Dinner: Steak with sweet potato fries and large mixed salad.

Sunday

Breakfast: Overnight oats with chia and blueberries.

Lunch: Roast chicken, potatoes and green vegetables.

Dinner: Smoked mackerel pâté, wholemeal toast, fresh tomatoes.

Healthy brain shopping list

So what kind of foods does a healthy body and brain diet include? Based on the scientific evidence, Priya Tew suggests:

Wholegrains

Contain fibre that provides the steady supply of energy a healthy brain needs. 

They also feed the microbiome, the ‘friendly’ gut bacteria, which produces chemicals that may protect the brain and heart. Have two portions a day.

Oily fish

A great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which protect against brain ageing. Omega-3 is a vasodilator — it increases blood flow to the brain, which tends to decline with age. 

Add caviar or other fish roe, which is rich in omega-3s and antioxidants, as well as B vitamins such as B12 (low levels have been associated with a higher dementia risk). Eat twice a week.

Note: While eating fish seems to be good for you, the same does not apply to fish oil supplements. This is generally true of most supplements. 

Berries 

High in antioxidants to fight age-related decline. Blueberries, for instance, contain polyphenols, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Eat a handful (fresh or frozen) a day.

Tomatoes 

Tomatoes do seem to be an important part of a balanced diet, but in supplement form lycopene may do harm [File photo]

Tomatoes do seem to be an important part of a balanced diet, but in supplement form lycopene may do harm [File photo]

Tomatoes do seem to be an important part of a balanced diet, but in supplement form lycopene may do harm [File photo]

Studies suggest the lycopene they contain may be anti-inflammatory, but specific health claims are hard to make. 

Tomatoes do seem to be an important part of a balanced diet, but in supplement form lycopene may do harm.

Eggs

Choose omega-3-infused eggs on days when oily fish is not being eaten.

Seeds

These are naturally rich in omega-3s, which are important for brain health, memory, concentration and brain connectivity — in particular, pumpkin, chia and flax seeds. Eat a handful a day.

Green vegetables

A great source of a plant chemical called folate, which could help improve brain function. Eat at least two portions a day.

Walnuts contain vitamins thought to help slow brain ageing. Eat a small handful (30g) five times a week [File photo]

Walnuts contain vitamins thought to help slow brain ageing. Eat a small handful (30g) five times a week [File photo]

Walnuts contain vitamins thought to help slow brain ageing. Eat a small handful (30g) five times a week [File photo]

Walnuts

Contain vitamins thought to help slow brain ageing. Eat a small handful (30g) five times a week.

Avocados are full of vitamin E, which plays an important role in brain health and in reducing inflammation [File photo]

Avocados are full of vitamin E, which plays an important role in brain health and in reducing inflammation [File photo]

Avocados are full of vitamin E, which plays an important role in brain health and in reducing inflammation [File photo]

Avocado

Full of vitamin E, which plays an important role in brain health and in reducing inflammation. Have one or two avocados a week.

Green tea

Could help improve memory and brain function, and reduce anxiety, due to the flavonoids it contains. 

Drink up to six cups a day (avoiding tea and coffee, because they all contain caffeine).

Beans & legumes 

Packed with B vitamins, which are great for brain health. Eat them at least three times a week.

Offal

A source of vitamin B12, which could help protect against brain ageing. Liver is rich in vitamin A, which some studies suggest can boost concentration. Eat once a week.

Seaweed

A great source of folate and omega-3s. Enjoy seaweed-wrapped sushi, and crumble nori into stews.

Stay sharp with these delicious recipes 

Tomato Risotto 

Fry 250g smoked bacon (chopped up small) and a chopped onion with 25g butter. 

Tip in 300g risotto rice, mix until coated, add half a glass of white wine (optional). Cook for two mins until absorbed. 

Add 150g cherry tomatoes, 700ml hot chicken/veg stock and stir. Cover with a tight lid and bake for 18 minutes (gas mark 6, 200c) until cooked. Stir through 50g grated Parmesan cheese, before serving with salad. Serves four.

Stir through 50g grated Parmesan cheese, before serving with salad. The tomato risotto serves four [File photo]

Stir through 50g grated Parmesan cheese, before serving with salad. The tomato risotto serves four [File photo]

Stir through 50g grated Parmesan cheese, before serving with salad. The tomato risotto serves four [File photo]

Overnight oats with chia and blueberries

Combine 125g rolled oats with 60g chia seeds, 250ml milk and a tablespoon of maple syrup. Stir and leave in the fridge overnight. 

Serve topped with 60ml (four tablespoons) plain yoghurt, ten blueberries and five almonds.

Serve the overnight oats with chia and blueberries topped with 60ml (four tablespoons) plain yoghurt, ten blueberries and five almonds [File photo]

Serve the overnight oats with chia and blueberries topped with 60ml (four tablespoons) plain yoghurt, ten blueberries and five almonds [File photo]

Serve the overnight oats with chia and blueberries topped with 60ml (four tablespoons) plain yoghurt, ten blueberries and five almonds [File photo]

Green tea porridge 

Make a mug of green tea and use it to cook your porridge oats, then sweeten with fresh fruit and sprinkle toasted pumpkin seeds on top.

Sweeten the green tea porridge with fresh fruit and sprinkle toasted pumpkin seeds on top [File photo]

Sweeten the green tea porridge with fresh fruit and sprinkle toasted pumpkin seeds on top [File photo]

Sweeten the green tea porridge with fresh fruit and sprinkle toasted pumpkin seeds on top [File photo]

Sage pesto topped salmon

In a food processor, pulse a handful of fresh parsley and sage leaves, a garlic clove and a handful of walnuts with the juice and zest of half a lemon and salt and pepper until smooth. 

Then slowly pour in two tablespoons of olive oil. Turn off the motor and grate in a teaspoon of Parmesan cheese. Smear over salmon before cooking. 

Turn off the motor and grate in a teaspoon of Parmesan cheese. Smear over the s salmon before cooking

Turn off the motor and grate in a teaspoon of Parmesan cheese. Smear over the s salmon before cooking

Turn off the motor and grate in a teaspoon of Parmesan cheese. Smear over salmon before cooking [File photo]

Liver and bacon

Coat 450g sliced lambs’ or calves’ liver in seasoned flour, then fry in butter until lightly browned (but not cooked through) and remove to a plate. 

Soften a thinly sliced onion with two rashers of bacon cut into strips until browned. 

Sprinkle over a little flour and pour in 500ml hot beef stock, stirring constantly. Add ketchup to taste, then add the liver, season and serve when cooked through. Serves four.

Add ketchup to taste, then add the liver, season and serve when cooked through. Serves four [File photo]

Add ketchup to taste, then add the liver, season and serve when cooked through. Serves four [File photo]

Add ketchup to taste, then add the liver, season and serve when cooked through. Serves four [File photo]

Guacamole  

Mash a ripe avocado with two tablespoons chopped coriander, one tablespoon lemon juice, two teaspoons finely chopped onion, one minced garlic clove and a pinch of cayenne pepper and salt. 

Add a pinch of cayenne pepper and salt to the guacamole [File photo]

Add a pinch of cayenne pepper and salt to the guacamole [File photo]

Add a pinch of cayenne pepper and salt to the guacamole [File photo]

Spirulina Smoothie

Blend one ripe banana with 250ml almond milk, 30g oats, two tablespoons of nut butter, two teaspoons spirulina powder (from health food shops), one teaspoon honey, one teaspoon chia seeds, and serve with fresh or frozen raspberries on top.

Serve the smoothie with fresh or frozen raspberries on top [File photo]

Serve the smoothie with fresh or frozen raspberries on top [File photo]

Serve the smoothie with fresh or frozen raspberries on top [File photo]

Friends keep you young

Joining a community group such as the Women’s Institute or your local Neighbourhood Watch could help keep your brain young, as studies indicate that maintaining strong social networks seems to be linked to slower cognitive decline.

Southampton University researchers looked at the effect of volunteering and taking part in civic duties on brain health. They tracked more than 9,000 people over four decades and found those who participated in clubs and societies were mentally sharper in their 50s and 60s.

Professor Ann Bowling, who led the 2016 study, said: ‘The implication is that if people continue to engage socially throughout life, there may be some protection from cognitive decline.’

It’s not certain how socialising boosts the brain but studies show that key brain areas are bigger and better connected in people who have a wide social circle.

When researchers from the University of Oxford asked a group of men and women about the number of friends they’d been in touch with over the past month and scanned their brains, they found that around half a dozen brain regions were bigger in those who were more sociable.

For example, the anterior cingulate cortex, which we use to keep track of what others are doing, was bigger. And connections between it and another area we use to work out how others are feeling were particularly strong. The anterior cingulate plays a role in learning and memory too.

Friendship, and all the activities that come with it, also triggers the release of endorphins — morphine-like brain chemicals that give us and our immune system a feel-good boost.

Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, said: ‘Touch, laughter, singing, storytelling, the rituals of religion, eating socially and drinking alcohol all trigger the endorphin system.

‘There is no doubt that endorphins give us increased resistance to disease, particularly everyday illnesses such as colds, and allow us to recover faster from surgery.’

It is also likely that the activities we do with our friends help keep the mind young.

Professor Dunbar, who studies how friendships form, said: ‘Whether you are having a laugh around the table, going to the theatre or reminiscing, you are exercising the mind — in the same way as you exercise muscles at the gym.’

Laughter sparks production of the ‘feel-good’ brain chemical dopamine and cuts production of the stress hormone cortisol. In fact, even the anticipation of a good laugh can boost levels of mood-lifting endorphins.

Creative ways to charge your grey cells

Challenging the brain is key to helping prevent cognitive decline — and how much impact it can have in even a short time was powerfully demonstrated in one of our experiments for The Twinstitute series for BBC2.

Zoe Spink, 66, and her twin sister Gay were given different challenges to see if they could boost their brain function. They were joined by two additional pairs of twins, with each pair then split, forming two groups of three ‘singleton’ twins.

If you're managing to make progress with an unfamiliar skill, that is a good sign of new connections in your brain. When Zoe and the others returned to The Twinstitute to sit a follow-up brain age test, she was surprised at how much easier it seemed [File photo]

If you're managing to make progress with an unfamiliar skill, that is a good sign of new connections in your brain. When Zoe and the others returned to The Twinstitute to sit a follow-up brain age test, she was surprised at how much easier it seemed [File photo]

If you’re managing to make progress with an unfamiliar skill, that is a good sign of new connections in your brain. When Zoe and the others returned to The Twinstitute to sit a follow-up brain age test, she was surprised at how much easier it seemed [File photo]

Baseline tests showed that they all, as expected, started at roughly the same cognitive level.

Zoe’s group were launched into pottery and painting, while Gay’s group were put on a special diet packed with foods that purport to boost brain health. All six underwent tests of memory, reaction time and decision-making before and after the month-long experiment.

Dr Bradley Elliott, a psychologist from the University of Westminster, supervised the testing procedure for us. He firmly believes that regular sessions at any creative task (such as painting, pottery, piano-playing or even juggling) can stimulate neuroplasticity in the brain. 

Making the brain ‘younger’ 

‘The theory is that using the brain to implement new creative tasks can cause changes to it, allowing people to get better at recall and memory: their brain is literally rewired as new neural pathways form,’ says Dr Elliott.

He adds: ‘There are physical changes going on in the brain as you train it. If you challenge people in this way, you find they get better in terms of memory recall and certain parts of their brains get bigger, to resemble the brains of younger people.

Research suggests that the 'effort and improvement' aspects of the activity are key. Learning a totally new creative skill may be more effective than simple practising an existing one [File photo]

Research suggests that the 'effort and improvement' aspects of the activity are key. Learning a totally new creative skill may be more effective than simple practising an existing one [File photo]

Research suggests that the ‘effort and improvement’ aspects of the activity are key. Learning a totally new creative skill may be more effective than simple practising an existing one [File photo]

‘The creative activity seems to help their brains re-format in ways that allow brain cells to reconnect more effectively.’

It certainly appeared to work for Zoe. ‘Art and crafts really are not my thing,’ she admits. ‘I managed to get clay all over my face and really struggled to control the pottery wheel, which you worked with a foot-pedal, when I turned up to the session in my high heels.

‘Painting was even more traumatic. My attempts at sketching a banana and an apple were so poor, I asked if I could just mix colours and create random designs instead.’

Zoe found abstract painting more enjoyable and set up an easel so she could paint at home.

‘I found the process really relaxing,’ she says. ‘I had to concentrate hard to get the colours and designs right, and although I normally can’t sit still for long, the time flew by when I was painting.’

She says she would happily spend three hours a night dabbling away.

Research suggests that the ‘effort and improvement’ aspects of the activity are key. 

Learning a totally new creative skill may be more effective than simple practising an existing one.

Challenging the brain is key to helping prevent cognitive decline — and how much impact it can have in even a short time was powerfully demonstrated in one of our experiments for The Twinstitute series for BBC2 [File photo]

Challenging the brain is key to helping prevent cognitive decline — and how much impact it can have in even a short time was powerfully demonstrated in one of our experiments for The Twinstitute series for BBC2 [File photo]

Challenging the brain is key to helping prevent cognitive decline — and how much impact it can have in even a short time was powerfully demonstrated in one of our experiments for The Twinstitute series for BBC2 [File photo]

It seems the benefits come not from the creative results — as Zoe herself would concede — but from your progress and its effect on your brain.

You don’t have to become a Rembrandt — in fact, you don’t even have to be slightly good at art. You just have to work hard at it and make some progress.

If you’re managing to make progress with an unfamiliar skill, that is a good sign of new connections in your brain.

Proof it’s never too late to learn 

When Zoe and the others returned to The Twinstitute to sit a follow-up brain age test, she was surprised at how much easier it seemed.

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‘I found the first test impossibly difficult but I sailed through it a second time,’ she says.

The results confirmed her dramatically improved scores. On average, the ‘newly creative’ trio shaved six years off their brain age, though Zoe’s ten-year drop really stood out.

And here’s how to get started

Psychologist Dr Bradley Elliott says regular sessions at any creative task might stimulate new connections between cells and ‘rejuvenate’ the brain. 

You should aim to practise your task most days and have some sort of measure of improvement.

The point is it should be a new activity, such as painting (you can buy a set of paints with a brush for about £12 from Amazon, plus a pack of special paper for around £5), pottery (1kg packs of self-hardening clay cost around £6, a set of shaping tools about £10), or learning a musical instrument — an electronic keyboard (from about £70 online) is the most inexpensive and straightforward option, plus you can plug in headphones so no one has to listen to you practise.

Another option is juggling — buy a set of juggling balls for around £10 and watch YouTube videos to help perfect your skills. Languages are particularly good — they require socialisation. 

There are loads of groups where people meet and socialise in a second language, and the range of apps and online resources is staggering. The hardest thing, of course, is to keep going. 

Join a group. Prioritise. Plan. Get a teacher online or in person — and mainly, find something you really enjoy.

Zoe says her new hobby has had an impact in other ways, too. ‘I’m amazed that, at my stage of life, I’ve found something new I can do. It has given me a real confidence boost.’

Making this series and Zoe’s experience has inspired the two of us to take up a new challenge. We have just turned 40 and it’s easy to believe that our days of acquiring a new skill are over — but it’s never too late to learn a thing you’ve always wanted to learn. Our own father started learning Mandarin at 79 — to go along with the kung fu lessons he had started the previous year.

He beats us both at Scrabble. He also does a weekly sketch class and, at the age of 80, is one of the most mentally agile people we know. And his Chinese is slowly improving!

Both of us were inspired by our father and by Zoe, and we are starting the piano and have new exercise goals for 2019.

In themselves, these activities are joyful but they may have profound effects on the length and quality of our lives.

Science is only just beginning to unpick how all this works. 

But if, in later life, you take up a new hobby or sport, it’s not just the brainwork that goes with specifically learning the task that is good for you — there are wider benefits too: increased motivation, confidence, happiness, stress relief, companionship and purpose.

These things lengthen life and, much more to the point, make it worth lengthening.

Learning Swedish boosted our brainpower!

As part of Dr Chris and Xand’s investigations for The Twinstitute series, Des and Nick Gibbons, 52, were set the challenge of learning Swedish in a month. Here they reveal how it helped their mental agility. 

Nick, a bus station supervisor, lives in Oldham, Lancs, with wife Caron, 47, a travel shop assistant, and their children Ashley, 26, Amy, 23, and Alex, 21. He says:

We don’t have any family members with dementia, but like most people in their 50s my memory isn’t as good as it used to be. 

As part of Dr Chris and Xand's investigations for The Twinstitute series, Des (far left) and Nick Gibbons, 52, were set the challenge of learning Swedish in a month

As part of Dr Chris and Xand's investigations for The Twinstitute series, Des (far left) and Nick Gibbons, 52, were set the challenge of learning Swedish in a month

As part of Dr Chris and Xand’s investigations for The Twinstitute series, Des (far left) and Nick Gibbons, 52, were set the challenge of learning Swedish in a month

I was always forgetting things my wife and daughter had asked me to do, unless I wrote them down — it drove them mad.

For the experiment, we were given the task of learning to speak Swedish in 30 days by spending at least an hour a day studying. It was daunting as neither of us spoke any foreign languages, but we were both keen to have a go — and do better than each other. We’ve always been best mates but also quite competitive.

I learned using online language resources, and Des had Skype tutorials from a Swedish language teacher.

I stayed up until the early hours on the computer or on a phone app to fit my studying around work. Even at the bus station, I had Swedish words for directions plastered all over the office walls — everybody thought it was brilliant.

Within a few weeks I was able to give some Swedish tourists directions in Swedish. You should have seen their faces — they were so not expecting that. 

Then, after a month, we flew out to Gothenburg to complete a number of tasks, such as buying a train ticket. I was amazed at how well I could make myself understood. But it wasn’t just my Swedish that improved. 

Half way through the month, my wife was noticing that I was remembering things better —and when we repeated some cognitive tests at the end of the month, our scores doubled.

I had no idea I was capable of this, and I now want to learn other languages, too.’

Des, a single dad, runs training courses in fire safety and first aid. He lives in Glossop, Derbyshire with three of his six children. He says:

I was starting to forget things and was relying on writing things down to make sure I got everything done, so I welcomed a challenge that might help my memory. I was taught Swedish daily via hour-long Skype sessions with a language teacher. I hit it off with the teacher but did find it time consuming.

Wherever I was travelling with work, I had to find the time to fit in the lessons. I tried to work hard at it, though, taking notes and listening.

Like Nick, I’ve noticed that learning a language has really sharpened me up mentally. I’ve been studying for a teaching qualification that was supposed to take three months, but I did it in five days! My concentration has improved, too: it’s like a part of my brain has been reawakened.

I’ve also started reading more books and now read the newspaper from cover to cover, rather than just the sports pages.

Why new languages are good for you

By 2025, an estimated one million people in the UK will have dementia, but studies suggest that taking up certain activities, even as late as in your 40s and 50s, can reap dividends — delaying dementia and even helping the brain recover better from stroke.

One of these activities is learning a foreign language. Experts believe the mental challenge bolsters brain strength and resilience, with benefits lasting as long as you continue to practice your newfound skills.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans have shown that people who are bilingual might be able to boost the function of certain areas of their brains, which could compensate for some of the problems caused by the early stages of dementia.

Cognitive tests repeated before and after their one month of language immersion showed that both men had more than doubled their brain score — and both Nick and Des reported that their families had noticed a difference in their brain power [File photo]

Cognitive tests repeated before and after their one month of language immersion showed that both men had more than doubled their brain score — and both Nick and Des reported that their families had noticed a difference in their brain power [File photo]

Cognitive tests repeated before and after their one month of language immersion showed that both men had more than doubled their brain score — and both Nick and Des reported that their families had noticed a difference in their brain power [File photo]

Dr Thomas Bak, a neuropsychologist from the University of Edinburgh, explains that being bilingual appears to increase the number of connections between brain cells, causing a delay in the onset of dementia.

‘Different studies show bilinguals tend to develop dementia a few years later (around four years later) than others,’ he says.

‘It doesn’t mean a second language prevents dementia, but it does imply that the brain is better able to deal with the pathology.’

He adds that being able to speak more than one language has been shown to have positive implications for people recovering from brain injuries, too. In the case of stroke, for example, studies show 40 per cent of bilinguals recover fully compared with less than 20 per cent of those with one language.

But the problem is that getting to grips with a new language can be a struggle, especially as we get older. Is it ever too late to learn? And how good do we need to be in order to reap the rewards?

In our BBC2 series The Twinstitute, we set out to measure the brain impact of learning a foreign language — and whether there was any difference learning from a teacher versus being self-taught via apps, online videos and language podcasts.

We gave 52-year-old twins Nick and Des Gibbons one month to become fluent in Swedish. The results were extremely impressive.

Cognitive tests repeated before and after their one month of language immersion showed that both men had more than doubled their brain score — and both Nick and Des reported that their families had noticed a difference in their brain power.

Going back to college to learn a new language from scratch offers the advantages of extra real-time feedback as well as body language.

Plus, multiple studies show you are five times more likely to complete a course of traditional lessons than if you’re teaching yourself.

In The Twinstitute, while both methods improved brain function, actual face-to-face lessons won out for language skills and aptitude.

Self-taught methods can be useful, though, for learning the context of words without having to get bogged down by rules or grammar. A teach-yourself method can also prove a convenient way to fit language learning into a busy life.

But without feedback from a teacher you will need self-discipline to keep going.

Find a language school online

Kris Broholm, an expert on language learning and host of the podcast Actual Fluency, recommends…

The Michel Thomas Method

Online courses from £9.99 for an hour, michelthomas.com

‘I’ve found some of these courses helpful. You can often find the CDs in your local library, so you can try it free.’

DuoLingo

Free, App Store & Google Play, duolingo.com

‘Good fun. The programme offers lessons in more than 80 languages on your smartphone or computer. You can choose the length of lesson and it saves your progress.’

Coffee Break podcasts

Free from podcast platforms, radiolingua.com

‘Great to use when you have some down time. Each episode is around 20 minutes long and takes the form of a lesson between a teacher and student; you listen along.’

Drops

Five minutes free per day, option to pay for more. App Store, Google Play, languagedrops.com

‘This is for learning single words. It offers 31 languages and shows you the spelling of the word, a picture of its meaning, and plays the correct pronunciation. The app then sets short games to check you understand the meaning.’

iTalki

Free to use site, then pay per lesson, italki.com

‘Lists thousands of language tutors worldwide. Lessons are usually offered via a video call service such as Skype. Prices depend on the teacher but are typically £7 to £20 an hour.’

Shortcuts to improve memory

There are plenty of geniuses who make world-changing scientific discoveries but cannot remember the name of new people they meet or what day of the week it is [File photo]

There are plenty of geniuses who make world-changing scientific discoveries but cannot remember the name of new people they meet or what day of the week it is [File photo]

There are plenty of geniuses who make world-changing scientific discoveries but cannot remember the name of new people they meet or what day of the week it is [File photo]

When you’re trying to improve overall brain function, including memory, things such as exercise, weight loss and learning a new skill will all help.

They also reduce the risk and delay the onset of dementia, where laying down new memories becomes increasingly difficult.

But they probably won’t turn you from being the sort of absent-minded person who can never remember where they left their keys — that’s both of us! — into the kind of meticulous individual who knows where everything is the whole time.

That transformation is hard to make because it’s less about memory and more about organisation and motivation.

There are plenty of geniuses who make world-changing scientific discoveries but cannot remember the name of new people they meet or what day of the week it is.

For The Twinstitute series, we spoke to memory expert Jonathan Hancock about his techniques. He became interested in this while studying for his degree in English at the University of Oxford and has twice been a memory world record holder.

He uses techniques that are specific and, in some cases, hundreds of years old. These take many years to master and will help win memory contests — but, with a little practice, they can help in social situations too.

First you need to figure out how you want to improve your memory. For instance, if you mislay your keys, you need to build a habit and always put them in the same place. It’s an example of a memory shortcut and it works for loads of things.

Tips to sharpen your recall

1) Find your motivation — why you are trying to learn this?

2) Make a plan of attack. So-called ‘learning plans’ get more, not less, important as we get older. Figure out what you need to know and how or when you’ll approach it.

3) Choose your learning zone. Where and when do you learn best? Does music help?

4) Get someone to test you on what you’ve learnt. Teaching someone else also works well and provides motivation.

5 Draw cartoons, diagrams and highlight things in bright colours. Making notes on a laptop is unlikely to stick.

6) Make it personal. If you’re remembering history, try to put yourself into the story.

If you are trying to acquire new information and are struggling, then Jonathan’s approach can come in handy (see box). Some techniques are common sense. 

They work equally well for learning new subjects or for more immediate problems, such as remembering everyone’s name when you go into a room.

We both use this when meeting new people — we have weird animals or celebrities that we link with rhymes or pictures to new people’s names. Henrys and Harrys are always Henry VIII. If there is an Anne, then you can imagine Henry decapitating her — grisly but memorable.

Fortunately, as we get older there is evidence that even if our absolute ability to retain information declines a little, we do develop some short cuts and may be less easily distracted.

Chris had personal experience of this, in an experiment where he went up against a ten-year-old in a juggling competition. Neither had ever juggled before and they had a week to prepare.

Over the initial two-hour lesson, Chris thrashed his rival. He could focus fully on what the teacher said, and knew how to learn. 

But over the course of the week, between his job and being the father of a baby, he managed just 20 minutes’ practice — and the ten-year-old surged ahead.

With just half an hour to go and fearing total humiliation, Chris managed to learn to do eight cycles of three balls. His child opponent managed 20. But both had gone from non-juggling to being pretty good at it.

Life experience is a far bigger factor in learning than age alone, so understanding your motivation, planning a schedule and commitment, as well as not giving your brain age a second thought, is key. It’s probably not your age holding you back. More likely, it’s your pride.

Compiled by Louise Atkinson

Additional reporting: Jo Waters, Pat Hagan, Fiona MacRae, Jennie Agg 

More great anti-ageing pullouts next week:

Inside Monday’s Daily Mail: Sleep secrets to live well for longer

Inside Tuesday’s Daily Mail: Best exercise to hold back the years

Inside Wednesday’s Daily Mail: Mind tricks to keep you younger