We may have a good chance of living to 100 and working until we’re 70, but research suggests that our brains start slowing down from the age of 42.
A new report by Citrix and the University of Texas’ Center for BrainHealth suggests that not only do our brains start to decline earlier than you might think, but the ways in which most of us currently work and live actually exacerbate the problem.
Obvious triggers include poor diet, a lack of sleep and not doing enough exercise, but there are more insidious factors at play, too. Letting your brain switch to autopilot to deal with repetitive tasks can slowly kill your ability to innovate, while focussing too heavily on memorising information “depletes limited brain resources better used for functions that promote independence throughout life, such as problem-solving, decision-making and critical reasoning,” say the researchers.
Higher-performing brains, says the study, are those that have learned to block out what they don’t need. Attempts to multitask lead to a build up of the stress hormone cortisol, which slowly kills off brain cells, ruins memory and plays havoc with your immune system. Trying to deal with every text and email as it arrives is similarly damaging. Our brains work best, and stay healthiest, when they are encouraged to focus in on a problem and actively engage with it, not when they are subjected to masses of competing stimuli.
For much the same reasons, open-plan offices, pointless meetings and over-large teams/decision-making groups do not only wreck our mental capacity, distracting us from more creative and involved mental processes, but they can actually lead to worse-functioning brains in the long run. When people say they can feel their office environment turning their brains to mush, they’re more accurate than they might think!
Fortunately, there are ways to save your mind from the ravages of time and office politics. The report highlights five major tips for keeping your brain at its best:
1. Step away from the problem
A five minute break from what you are doing, five times a day, can help clear your mind and help you solve problems more effectively.
2. Don’t multitask
This just slows things down. When we’re interrupted, it can take 20 minutes to get back on track, stretching a 25 minute task into several hours. Focus on each task sequentially for maximum effectiveness.
Pick the two most important things on your to-do list that you must crack today. Then, dedicate uninterrupted time to doing them.
4. Shake yourself out of routine
Doing the same things and thinking the same thoughts day after day will send your brain into a living coma. Allow yourself to ask questions and don’t reject new ideas that occur to you out-of-hand. Practise translating these ideas into succinct, one-sentence statements – and then share them with others.
5. Innovate or die
Your brain needs to keep creating in order to stay young. When you find yourself nodding along in a meeting, note down the three main assumptions that are driving this approach to a problem, and then think of a completely different way of dealing with the issue. Evaluate and compare the ideas. In what ways would they work? Where are they flawed? How can they be improved? This kind of innovative thinking can help keep the neurological rust at bay.