Life around us often seems full of bad news. But optimistic news sometimes occurs too, and I was personally cheered by a new report concerning the human brain.

We have been told that the human brain slows down with age and there is a certain level of mental decay associated with old age. We lose brain cells through the years and we don’t manufacture new ones: and we notice it, too. How quickly young people react to things! How fast they are on the uptake – while I’m still looking for my reading glasses.

But a study just published by the brain science journal Cell Stem Cell, written by Maura Boldrini of Columbia University in New York, says that mental deterioration is not inevitable in old age. The brain is capable of generating fresh neurons – the building blocks of cognitive ability – and making good use of the synapses (the connecting bits) that already exist. Brain function in old age is also assisted by “social interaction, learning, exercise and diet”.

I feel I’ve learned a lot about how my brain functions by taking up crossword puzzles relatively late in life. I’m not naturally clever at crosswords – unlike those brilliant women who were recruited to Bletchley Park during the war who were chosen for their skill at cryptic crosswords. I’m by disposition slow and labouring at the task.

Yet, over the past 10 years, by doing a crossword every day, I’ve gradually become better at it. It has improved my memory for words and taught me to note the names of trees, birds and flowers. It has made the brain cells work while searching for solutions.

And I’ve noticed this about brain function: if I start a crossword before lunch, fill in a few of the easier answers immediately, and then set the puzzle aside for several hours, the harder solutions will sometimes pop into my head later in the day. Because, subconsciously, those neurons and synapses have been working away doing a memory search. But if I start the crossword late in the day, the brain is too tired to get the neurons into gear.

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