The BBC1 show, fronted by 71-year-old Angela Rippon, had plenty of ideas on how to stave off cognitive decline and keep the brain healthy.

Last night saw the fascinating conclusion of How To Stay Young, a two-part programme looking at how to age well, in both body and mind.

Presenters Angela Rippon (looking a very sprightly 71 years old) and Dr Chris van Tulleken were investigating the many different factors that can affect the health of your brain as you age, and the things you can do to help keep it sharp.

This meant carrying out tests that looked at two groups of seniors – one that had regular table tennis sessions and one that had regular walking sessions. The idea would be to see if the aerobic benefits of walking would be more or less effective than the hand-eye co-ordination benefits of table tennis. Afterwards, the two groups were given cognitive tests, and while walking came out on top for physical brain improvements, the social and mood-boosting benefits of table tennis also had a strong effect on brain health. The end advice seemed to be you should enjoy a brisk walk on the way to your table tennis session to reap the most benefits…

Angela Rippon & Dr Chris van Tulleken
Angela Rippon & Dr Chris van Tulleken

Next, the presenters travelled to the island of Okinawa in Japan, where not only do the elderly residents live into their 90s and even 100s, but they also have extremely low rates of dementia and heart disease. It was discovered that the food they ate was key, and in particular, the regular consumption of purple sweet potato. The vegetable contains a set of compounds called anthocyanins (which give it its purple colour) and which help maintain healthy blood vessels in the brain. Given that purple sweet potatoes aren’t always readily available in western supermarkets, other food options recommended were blackcurrants, blueberries, blackberries, aubergine and red cabbage. The key message? Eat purple everyday…

The show also looked at how learning a new skill, even as you enter your 50s, 60s and beyond, could increase the size of different parts of your brain, particularly learning a new language. Dr Chris’ chatted to his own father, who is a keen artist to find out whether he thought it kept him sharp, while Chris revealed he was learning to play guitar and learning French – all activities that could be helpful in staving off age-related brain decline.

Angela talked about her own experiences of dementia. Her late mother, Edna, had vascular dementia. Talking about how she saw her mother seem to ‘disappear’ over the years as the illness took hold, she described it as a ‘very sharp learning curve’. She visited a lab which had been collecting samples of brains from nuns who had donated them for medical research (which left many viewers shuddering as slithers of nun brain were shown on screen). However, the fascinating insight their brain samples offered was invaluable. Scientists were able to compare the brains of some of the nuns who had exhibited signs of dementia against those without. They looked at letters and stories written by the nuns just before they entered the convent and discovered that those who had very expressive, descriptive language were less likely to develop dementia than those whose prose was very plain, or with grammar and spelling mistakes.

Finally, Dr Chris looked at a ground-breaking new study which looked at how injecting elderly people with the blood from younger people, could potentially improve the symptoms of people living with dementia. The rather ‘vampiric’ concept was based on studies on mice, who were genetically modified to exhibit signs of Alzheimer’s, tested on their problem-solving abilities, and then re-tested after being injected with blood from younger mice, which saw improved brain skills. The belief is that the ‘young blood’ has regenerative properties for people with neurodegenerative diseases. The study is being rolled out to humans and showing promising results.

Ultimately, the programme wanted to push home the message that lifestyle factors could have a real effect on our brain aging, which means we could take control of it ourselves. They suggest:
- Do exercise – Angela recommends dancing
- Stay social
- Learn a new skill
- Eat a healthy diet which includes plenty of purple veg

It’s certainly food for thought…

Catch up on How To Stay Young on BBC iPlayer.