Keeping your brain in good shape will not only stave off mental decline, but can also improve your relationships and boost your well-being – and it’s never too late to make a difference

Health



14 April 2021

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Ben Giles

ONE sultry afternoon in 1862 in Luxor in Egypt, Edwin Smith was haggling with an antiquities dealer for an unknown papyrus. Though he suspected its importance, Smith couldn’t know it would turn out to be not just the earliest known medical text, at over 4000 years old, but the first ever documented mention of the brain. And what did it say about the most complex entity in the known universe? That it was “cranial offal”, to be unceremoniously trashed during embalming.

We have learned rather a lot about the brain since then. Even so, it is only in the past 25 years that learning how best to look after the stuff upstairs has become a major priority for researchers. It is easy to be resigned to the idea that as we get older, our brains wind down, memories decline and reactions slow. But a wealth of new research shows that it is never too late to improve our brain health – a concept that goes way beyond the absence of disease.

A long view of how, across some 2 million years, evolution has shaped the function of our brains is revealing new and unexpected ways to keep them healthy for longer.

In 2018, an international group of specialists forming the Global Council on Brain Health identified a surprisingly simple test to assess whether your brain is in good shape: whether you function well in daily life. This may even sound overly simplistic, but the group, for which I am a special adviser, found that the brain requires three vital functions to work together seamlessly: executive function, or our …