Thought about taking up a musical instrument? Need another reason to encourage your children to play music? It could be good for the brain in the long term, helping to reduce mental decline. And with people living to older ages, it’s not surprising there’s an avid interest in anything that may slow down mental decline.

Mental decline is different from dementia. It is something that affects all of us; there’s evidence that a gradual decline in memory and thinking abilities starts in early middle-life and accelerates as we grow older. Dementia, on the other hand, is due to specific disorders that affect only a proportion of people.

It is understandable that, when people first notice some forgetfulness, they may worry that dementia is on its way – especially if others in their family have suffered from the condition. But dementia is much more than simply a loss of memory, and the forgetfulness may not even be part of mental decline! Many children and teenagers frequently forget seemingly silly things of everyday life.

Mental decline, though, can become annoying and troublesome, and there have been plenty of suggestions for keeping it at bay. There are the advocates of crossword puzzles and other brainteasers such as Sudoku. Others feel card games, chess and conversation are the secret of keeping an active mind. There’s increasing evidence that regular exercise retards mental decline; and there’s also evidence that speaking two or more languages helps.

Music may also hold a key. Astonishingly, many musicians can remember  long pieces of music note for note and retain complex motor skills – skills often far beyond what the rest of us could ever do – until well into their advanced old age, sometimes even beyond a hundred years old.

Researchers in Toronto have now compared mental performance in 18 professional musicians and 24 non-musicians in late middle life*. The non-musicians were carefully selected to match the musicians – for example in education, general health and language skills – so that they differed only in musical skills. Most of the musicians played more than one instrument.

As might be expected, the musicians did better in tests of auditory skills than the non-musicians. They also did better in many of the other tests, including a composite measure of thinking ability. The results suggest that sustained music training or involvement is associated with improved aspects of mental functioning in older adults. People who have played musical instruments for many years seem to have less mental decline than their non-musical counterparts.

This was a small study with relatively few participants; but the researchers make the point that finding these differences in a small group is promising.

And even if you or your children don’t end up with a better-functioning brain in later life, playing music is a lot of fun.

*Link to study: 


The rise of sugar is a fascinating piece of our social history – from its discovery in India to an expensive luxury added in small quantities to some foods and drinks and now to the astronomical amounts we consume today. Its story includes establishing it as a crop in the New World, the development of slavery to fulfil the market in Europe, blockades in the Napoleonic War preventing its transatlantic shipment and the development of rival sugar beet manufacture in Europe. Is the latest part of the story that it is making us ill?

It’s uncommon to find someone who doesn’t like sugar. Although people vary in how much sweetness they enjoy, most of us gain pleasure from sweet foods and drinks. Sugar is quickly absorbed and the sweetness triggers the “reward centre” in our brain, making us feel good. Many of us turn to sweet things when we feel a bit low and in need of comfort or perking up; and sweet snacks such as chocolates or biscuits are often shared amongst friends or given as gifts.

But recently sugar has been getting some bad press. You have probably seen the headline accusation that sugar is “the new tobacco”, suggesting that sugar, like smoking, is the cause of widespread disease. Certainly, a large part of the population is now designated “obese”, which is worrying as a large amount of body fat increases the chance of major diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Others have countered by saying that it’s not specifically sugar that has led to the current levels of obesity and diabetes, but people eating too many calories from all types of food and drink.

So does our sugar consumption matter? The simple and straight answer is “yes”.

In fact, the subject has become so important that a consortium of Britain’s leading doctors and scientists have formed a group – Action on Sugar – to publicise the problem and what’s to be done about it.

Although defenders of sugar are right that there is no decisive evidence yet that sugar alone leads to obesity and disease, there can be no doubt it is a major contributing factor. The attractive taste of sweet food and drinks makes it easy to consume too many calories. And it is possible, as some doctors think, that fructose – which makes up half of the main type of sugar we eat – is not handled well by our bodies and is turned into fat that is linked with diseases*.

These days sugar seems to be in everything. The amount of sugar sold each year is truly stunning. It’s not just the sugar we buy for home use and the sugar you’d expect to find in desserts and confectionary. Processed food often sells more on taste than on nutritional quality, and added sweetness can make all sorts of food seem more appetising. This means sugar can be found in a huge variety of savoury foods, from ham to curries, soups to ready meals, pizzas to tins of beans. And there’s the large quantities of sugar that go into soft drinks, particularly fizzy drinks and so-called “sports drinks”, where one can may contain the equivalent of many teaspoons of sugar. Many people see these drinks as a major health hazard, and several states in the USA are taking steps to limit their sales.

Our bodies do not need sugar – however much we want it! It fulfils no nutritional need, and cutting back on added sugar makes a lot of sense. (Most nutritionists agree that there is no need to worry about the sugar naturally occurring in whole fruit and vegetables.) Reducing the sugar in your diet is a great help to achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight, and the health advantages of doing so are immense.

For all our sakes let’s wish Action on Sugar every success.


*We explain how your body processes fructose in our book, How to Live to 110: Your comprehensive guide to a healthy life


Microbes have a bad name. Most people just think of them as carriers of disease. Indeed, bacteria and other microscopic organisms are often pictured in TV adverts as tiny evil humans that every home-loving person should buy powerful antiseptics to eradicate.

Of course, a few microbes are the cause of major diseases, and some others bring less serious upsets. But it’s unfair of us to think of all microbes as harmful. Many of them fulfil useful purposes in the environment, such as breaking down waste to release chemicals for plants and animals to re-use. And some are vital for our health.

Each of us carries around a whole personal environment of different microbes ¬¬ –on our skin and inside our body. Researchers have coined the term ‘Human Microbiome’ for this, and recently they have been showing how individual it can be and exploring how it affects our health.

We acquire our first microbes as we are born, and our exposure to them increases rapidly over the first few years of life and continues into adulthood. As adults we carry around 10 microbial cells for every one of our own cells. That’s about 100 trillion microbe cells! Our gut alone contains about 2 kg of microbes.

These are not causing us any harm, and many are more than just passive passengers, coming along for the ride. We have learned a lot about the gut microbes, for example. They produce anti-inflammatories, pain killers and some vitamins as well as beneficial antioxidants. Recent research* has shown that people with cancer developing in their colons have a different microbial makeup in their colons to healthy people, which suggests some microbes may be protective against this. And fascinating laboratory work in mice** has suggested that some microbes might be implicated in body fatness, with other interesting work*** opening up about their association with metabolic changes related to type 2 diabetes.
With much of this work it’s far too early to suggest that actively changing gut microbes might be beneficial for humans. But these are interesting findings, and they undermine the simplistic view that microbes are there to be eradicated.

*Link to study on the Human Gut Microbiome and Risk of Colorectal Cancer  http://dx.doi:10.1093/jnci/djt300

**Link to study on the gut microbiome and obesity in mice

***Link to study of the human gut microbiome and metabolic markers

Link to study on dietary intervention impact on gut microbial gene richness

© 2012 How to Live to 110 Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha