Your attitude towards ageing matters

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Increasing the amount of physical activity that you do cuts the risk of dementia by as much as 60%, when combined with a healthy lifestyle which includes cutting out nicotine and and cutting down on alcohol.

Recent research now explains that exercise is the key to ageing successfully because physical activity keeps your brain healthy. A 2015 study reveals that older adults (their participants were Japanese men aged 60 to 74 years) are more likely to use the same part of the brain for tasks requiring cognitive control (such as the Stroop test — you can try it here) as young adults if they are physically fitter; those with less fitness use more parts of their brain to perform the same task. Another 2015 study also finds that brain atrophy can be reversed among healthy older adults and those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) through moderate intensity exercise.

But exercise is only half the equation. It’s also important to give your brain opportunities to grow new neural connections. The notion that healthy ageing involves giving yourself cognitively demanding tasks (see our earlier blog post) gets more support from a 2016 study. Building on earlier findings, this study demonstrates that mentally challenging activities – such as learning digital photography or quilting or learning both – produces greater improvements in memory than low hanging fruit, like travel and cooking activities for which participants are not required to learn something new.

It doesn’t do any harm to also increase healthy foods, specifically green vegetables, walnuts, curries, and omega-3 foods like eggs, bananas, dark chocolate, avocado, and blueberries, which have been found to reduce the risk of cognitive decline with age.

But it might surprise you to find out that social connections also have a powerful effect on your health. A 2016 study finds that having a larger social network is crucial for health during late, as well as early, adulthood. Seniors not in social isolation achieve better scores on health markers which include blood pressure, body mass index, and a measure of systemic inflammation.

And that your beliefs about ageing can also be impactful. A 2015 study finds that people who hold negative beliefs (e.g., “elderly people are decrepit”) are more likely to subsequently experience brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s dementia.

Just something to think about as the planets line up on this full moon.

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Getting into a habit and reaching your goals

Forty-seven days into the new year, you may have made a new year resolution and may be finding it hard to stick to it. Your new year goal may have been to get more exercise and eat healthier. Or it may have been to spend less and save more money. But it’s been an uphill task over the Lunar New Year.

It takes less than a minute to eat a pineapple tart, but much more time and effort to burn all that energy off — 50 floors for each tart to be exact. Bak kwa can be savoured for a wee bit longer, but not as long as the time it’ll take to climb 40 floors for each coin devoured over the weekend (calorie counts for all the various goodies here). Meeting up with friends over brunch, mall and warehouse sales, red packets and late-night games played with square tiles are the highlights of the festive occasion. It’s hard to get away with spending very little or nothing at all.

Our ultimate aim may be to lose weight or to have a healthier bank balance to make the downpayment on a property. But it’s only within reach when we articulate a goal that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. We make it possible for us to keep our new year resolution when we set a SMART goal.

Rather than saying we’ll eat healthy, we’re setting ourselves up for success if our plan is to “eat a serving of leafy vegetables at lunch and dinner” and “a serving of fruit with breakfast and at tea-time” by the end of the year. Rather than saying we’ll exercise more, we’re much more likely to implement an exercise habit if we were to aim to “do a physical activity for an hour twice a week” by the end of the year. Because really, who has time to exercise every day? Even carving time out to exercise every other day can be a challenge. Instead of saying we’ll spend less and save more, it’s be more effective to “set a monthly budget for dining and entertainment” by the end of the year.

But articulating a concrete goal which you can see yourself marking on your monthly calendar is only the first step. We’re more likely to succeed in achieving our goal when we form habits. Instead of saying we’ll sleep more, we’ll get more and better sleep if we were to cultivate a sleep habit each month. The goal of setting a budget for specific expenses would be within reach if we were first to develop a weekly habit of recording our expenses at the same time each week, say Sunday evening. Similarly, getting into the habit of eating fruits and veggies daily and exercising on specific days in the week makes it that much easier to achieve the goal of losing weight (How do fruits and veggies help? Here’s how), particularly when we’re preoccupied with life (I mean, problems, difficulties, challenges, sources of stress…that sort of thing).

Research reveals that doing a behaviour for the first time requires our attention. If our typical lunch and dinner are wonton mee and fish noodle soup, we engage the part of our brain which is responsible for decisions to add a portion of veggies to our meal. We intentionally seek out places which serve a generous portion of green veggies with our char kway teow and select foods which already have veggies built into the dish like yong tau foo. As we repeat this behaviour, our actions are stored in the area of the brain responsible for memory. Eventually, the mere action of getting lunch or dinner will automatically cue us into ordering a portion of veggies with our meal. And acquiring the habit of daily veggies and fruit makes our goal attainable.

But there are a few more tricks that will help jump-start your habit formation…

1. “Eating healthy” 
A 2013 study found that acquiring both exercise and diet habits simultaneously was more effective than acquiring them sequentially. People who tackled both exercise and diet habits were more successful in achieving their goals than those who changed their diet habits first and then acquired exercise habits.

So, it’s a good idea to implement both exercise and diet habits at the same time rather than one after the other.

2. “Getting exercise”
A 2015 study found that habits which prompted people to exercise were more important than the habit of exercising itself. Setting an alarm which cues us to go for gym class after work makes it more likely that we’ll actually go to the gym. Likewise, setting an appointment in the calendar to cue us to go on a nature walk or bike ride on the weekend, be it with friends or on our own, makes it more likely that we’ll realise our exercise goals. The study found that it could take a month or longer to develop the habits which prompt us to exercise.

Cues, such as having dinner with friends after attending a free mall Kpop fitness or Zumba class, can help you achieve your exercise goals.

3. “Spending less and saving more”
Because we may choose to shop and spend in order to make ourselves feel better (so say most the 700 women polled in a 2009 study), having a budget can help keep us in check.

But we’re more likely to stick to our budget if we also keep in mind the why of our goal, and if we focus on one goal. A 2010 study found that compared to people who listed 4 ways to save money, those who wrote down why they wanted to save money, actually spent less money when given the opportunity to do so, while a 2011 study observed that people were more successful at saving money when they focused on one goal (e.g., to gain financial independence) rather than multiple goals (e.g., for children’s education, a rainy day, retirement).

So, the first step in financial planningmaking a list of why you want to save money — is far more important than you think. That together with your newly minted habit of tracking monthly expenditure, you’ll be able to set a budget for all the categories of spending (e.g., mortgage repayments, insurance plans, transport, utilities, groceries, phone and internet subscriptions, dining out, clothes, entertainment), bringing you closer to your goal of “spending less and saving more”. To make it even easier, you can take advantage of this budget calculator which will do all the work for you.

 

Beyond stigma, there’s a role for mental health education

The 2012 Singapore Mental Health Study reported that 5.8% of the local adult population are affected by depression during their lifetime. The researchers of the study found that only a third of those with a mental illness in their lifetime had sought the help of mental health professionals (Today Online, 13 Oct 2015).

According to the same study, only 10% of the population did not subscribe to the belief that those with a mental illness “could get better if they wanted to” (The Straits Times, 6 Oct 2015). The other 90% would likely agree that “a person who has mental illness is seen as someone who is weak” (The Straits Times, “A healthy mind isn’t a given for anyone”, 10 Feb 2016) and that “depression is a failure of will” (The New York Times, “7 Thoughts From a Chronically Unhappy Person”, 21 April 2015).

But stigma is not the only reason why people who experience symptoms of depression, burnout, or anxiety do not seek professional help. Aside from prejudicial attitudes, the ability to recognise the warning signs of psychological distress remain a major barrier to mental health care. A 2015 study of 2219 Canadian employees revealed that of the participants objectively identified by the study authors to be experiencing depression, more than half “did not recognize a need to seek help” (ScienceDaily, 7 Oct 2015). But the fact of the matter is that poor mental health literacy is not unique to the community of that study. A 2014 study by IMH on local residents’ understanding of common mental disorders including depression revealed that just over half the respondents surveyed were able to accurately identify the signs and symptoms of depression (Channel News Asia, 6 Oct 2015).

Yes, we should support campaigns to reduce stigma. But, it would only be successful if it were to be accompanied by mental health education programmes which are not only about dementia (it is the only one of the top 3 mental health conditions of local concern) but which also reach the community including those in school and those in the workforce.