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Can we keep our minds sharp?


Is there really anything we can do to keep our minds sharper as we age? Mr Daniel Collerton and Professor Mike Trenell help the team at BBC 2's Trust Me, I'm a Doctor to find out which activities can boost brain function.



What if we could not only stop the decline, but could actually improve our brain power in older age? Recent scientific research suggests that we can do just that and with the help of experts at Newcastle University and 30 willing volunteers, Trust Me, I’m a Doctor have tested the theory out.

You can watch the programme on the BBC iplayer


The brain is an amazing engine composed of millions of intertwined brain cells supplied by an intricate network of blood vessels, and over time its ability to function, as well as this blood supply network, can deteriorate. Cognitive decline was commonly assumed to be an inevitable part of the aging process, with our brains naturally changing and deteriorating slowly as the years pass. In recent years, though, a huge market has sprung up with products, games, puzzles and techniques that claim they can boost our brain power, often aimed at those who are worried about this decline.


Trust Me, I'm a Doctor recruited 30 volunteers from  Voice North which was established at Newcastle University and harnesses the immense experience of the public. Aged between 50 and 90, they had a number of things in common: they were all fairly sedentary, they didn’t regularly do crosswords or Sudoku, and they were not artist or painters.


Daniel Collerton and Professor Mike Trenell wanted to see what doing something additional or something new did to their brain power and  tested their mental abilities at the start and end of the eight-week period, specifically some of the skills and functions that tend to get worse with age, such as memory, concentration and the ability to plan.

They also monitored their exercise levels during this time using activity watch monitors.


They then asked our volunteers all to do something extra for 3 hours every week over 8 weeks.


They wanted to test out three different protocols so they split them into three groups:


Group 1 = Sudoku and other puzzles

Group 2 = walking

Group 3 = art


The results


They found that the cognitive test scores improved in all three groups. However, the clear winners were the art group, who had the highest average improvement in their scores. 


Undoubtedly, learning life-drawing was a new mental challenge for the novice artists. Research suggests that the 'new' aspect of the activity is key - learning a new skill seems to be more effective than practising an existing one.

The results also suggest a further reason for the art group's success. The data from the activity monitors showed that across all three groups, the volunteers who were the most active showed the greatest improvement in the mental tests.


Though exercise wasn't their main task, the art group's average activity levels increased. It seems that they may have benefitted from a double brain-boosting effect: from the mental challenge of learning a new skill, and from being more active physically.


Text with thanks from the BBC website.

Picture shows Gabriel Weston with volunteers from Voice North in The Big Memory Experiment. Image credit: BBC/Alex Freeman 

published on: 16 July 2015