3 simple ways to keep mentally fit

Sleep is essential in order for our brains to function well as we age. A 2014 study found that those with poor sleep tend to have more memory and problem solving concerns. A local study also found that the less we sleep the faster our brains age.

Exercise is another key ingredient for healthy aging. The authors of a 2014 study report that those who didn’t exercise regularly were more likely to have problems with their memory. Moreover, older adults with have better lung and heart health, which is enhanced through regular physical activity, also tend to have better memory and problem solving abilities, according to another 2014 study.

Being socially active is another cornerstone for optimal aging. And these days social connections includes those through social media: According to a 2014 study, training older adults to use social media helped to improve their mental well-being. It’s clearly never too late to learn!

Our outlook on life can also contribute to our ability to age well. A 2014 study finds that those who are cynical — that is, those who tend to believe that others are “mainly motivated by selfish concerns” — are more likely to have dementia. Researchers observed that depression rates were lower among older adults who used the internet, according to a 2014 study.

It’s of course also important to eat right. A 2014 study finds that one gramme (1g) of tumeric a day improves the memory of those in the early stages of diabetes (and who therefore have a higher risk of dementia). Other research shows that eating baked or broiled fish once a week is associated with better brain functioning among older adults. According to this 2014 study, it doesn’t matter whether the fish that you’re eating has a lot of omega-3 fatty acids or not. That means that including ikan kurau could be just as beneficial for your brain health as salmon is. Fish curry, anyone?

Pursuing mentally challenging activities also plays an important role in determining how we age. A 2014 study shows that having a mentally challenging job is associated with better cognitive functioning later in life, while another 2014 study finds that those who engage in intellectual activities are less likely to experience cognitive decline later in life.

But it’s not actually about playing more majong or playing video games. Rather, it’s important for us to learn new skills. As they say, either you use it or you lose it. And recent research does show that learning a demanding skill pays dividends.

So here are 3 simple ways to challenge yourself.

1. Shop at a different supermarket
Instead of going to your usual supermarket, challenge your brain by going to a supermarket that’s not familiar to you. By going to the a different NTUC, Giant, or Sheng Siong, you’ll be able to find the brands you want, but your brain will have to work harder to locate them. Plus it could save you time, especially if you did your grocery shopping together with your other errands at the same location.

2. Explore a new route
Instead of doing your errands by the usual route that you know, try a different route. It could be using a different MRT line or bus route. It could be finding a different way to walk from the bus stop or MRT station to your office or home. Challenge your brain to add more information to the mental map that you already have for that neighbourhood or area.

3. Learn a new routine
You may already have a hobby that involves learning a pattern or routine. If you already read music, learning to play a genre that’s new to you (e.g., jazz) or learning a new instrument (e.g., the ukelele) will definitely help you make new neural connections.

If your hobby involves movement, try learning a new form. For dancers, this could mean trying something new like ballet for adults, tango, or tap. For those who practise tai chi, it could mean learning another style or form. Instead of cycling, learn to roller-blade or ice-skate. Or try a cycling trail in a nature reserve instead of using the park connectors.

If you like learning languages, it may be time to switch to a new language. If you play chess, challenge yourself with a new strategy game like weiqi (圍棋) or bridge.

If you’re already very practised at solving sudoku and optimizing your Freecell score, you may be surprised to find out that doing more of the same (even if you’re attempting the really difficult stuff) isn’t likely to be helping you delay dementia.

Because if you’re not outside your comfort zone, your brain’s probably not busy making new neural connections and you’re not building up your cognitive reserve.

Ageing successfully

Couple on Beach

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), life expectancy and medical advances has lengthened lifespans in most countries, and the number of people aged 60 years and older has doubled since 1980. Living longer is easy, with the advances we’re making in the domain of science and medicine. But we’re probably more interested in answering the question of how we can age successfully. That and avoiding dementia.

On this International Day of Older Persons, let’s review what’s been known for a while:

1. Eat your veggies!

There’s no getting away from it. Studies show that those who live a long independent life in Okinawa eat lots of fruits and vegetables, as well as fish and whole-grains. Their habit of eating until they feel 80% full is also likely a major contributor to the reason for their disability-free longevity.

2. Stay active!

Research indicates that cardiovascular disease risk is a major contributor to Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia (Fratiglioni et al., 2004). Lowering this risk through regular, weekly moderate-to-vigorous exercise is one strategy. And also a reason why Sardinians, who herd sheep over steep hills, are reputed to age successfully (see this TED video about the blue zones).

3. Engage your social brain!

A review of the literature shows that adults who are socially active are also likely to have better psychological wellbeing in their later years; being engaged in social activities and having stronger social networks is a protective factor against dementia (Fratiglioni et al., 2004). Various studies show that religious attendance, community involvement, and being employed are associated with better mental wellbeing among older adults. These activities are also shown to be helpful for local residents too…

So to sum, it’s the same thing that us active younger (a little bit younger) adults need to start doing. But we just need to keep doing them!

Caregiving: It’s a thankful job

World Elder Abuse Day

The World Health Organization defines dementia as a syndrome in which there is deterioration in memory, thinking, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday activities. It is not considered part of normal ageing, but affects a substantial number of older adults. The Statistical Appendix from the local Alzheimer’s Disease Association put the number of locals with dementia at 22 for every 1000 persons in the year of 2005.

The multidimensional response to the negative appraisal and perceived stress resulting from taking care of an ill individual (Kim et al., 2011) does however negatively affect those tasked with looking after the care recipient. This caregiver burden puts strain and stress particularly on those in full or part-time employment.

And caregivers aren’t necessarily only those who do this job fulltime. There are more caregivers out there than you think. A 2011 Singstat Singapore Newsletter article reports that almost 75% of respondents providing regular assistance to friends or family in 2010 were also working adults who juggle work with caregiving responsibilities.

Given that research has shown that caregiver stress increases with the physical dependency of the care receipient, it’s all the more important that caregivers are equipped with the right knowledge. Kua and Tan in a 1997 study (see also Mehta, 2005) found that those who looked after care receipients with dementia tended to experience a high level of stress. And according to WHO, this is a pattern observed in other communities as well.

But the mental health of caregivers is often overlooked. Although various organisations like the US Family Caregiver AllianceTouch Caregivers, Singapore Caregiving Welfare Association, Women’s Initiative for Ageing Successfully, Council for the Third Age, Asian Women’s Welfare Association, Tsao Foundation and Singapore Family Caregivers, have useful self-care tips, caregivers typically do not seek help for themselves.

So we may need to play our part and help someone we know and care about. The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests a self-assessment instrument which was designed by the American Medical Association.

So on this World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, help that person you know take a step in the right direction. Get him or her to assess his or her stress levels, which will ultimately protect himself or herself from being burnt out as a caregiver!

Majong is good for you

That majong is good for us is music to our ears (well, at least for some of us who actually play majong). The claim is based on recent research findings, which has led to reports that “tai chi, majong offer hope for dementia patients” (South China Morning Post, 22 April 2013; see also a similar report in www.majongnews.com).

The evidence is based on two studies. The first showed that a 3-times-a-week programme of either tai chi or majong for 12 weeks was significantly more effective in reducing depression scores among older adults with mild dementia and moderate depression in nursing homes than a handicraft control condition (Cheng et al., 2011). The second showed that the same programme was effective in improving cognitive task performance for a sample of 110 participants with the same population characteristics (Cheng et al., 2012); the first study sampled 12 participants for each condition. It’s not the case that the findings are limited to only nursing residents because these results replicate an earlier finding by Cheng and colleagues. Their 2006 study found that playing majong twice or four times a week for a duration of 16 weeks improved the cognitive performance of 62 older adults living in the community.

Although it would appear that playing majong is helpful in protecting against dementia, it would be wise to also observe that the participants in the 2006 study had not played (although they knew how to play) the game for at least 6 months prior to the study. Similarly, nursing residents were also not regularly practising tai chi or playing majong on a regular basis before the intervention programme was implemented. That is to say, there may be some benefit initially of engaging in mentally challenging activities, but at some point the cognitive demand of these activities may not be sustained over the longer term.

So the advice is to provide your brain with opportunities to grow new neural connections. Giving yourself cognitively demanding tasks like mastering a new language, musical instrument, skill, dance, game, or exercise form, serves this purpose. Learning to play a mentally challenging game like Chinese or international chess, weiqi, taboo, scattergories, and majong for the first time will definitely put us out of our comfort zone. But with a little practice (or a lot for strategy games), it likely loses its edge in its ability to build cognitive reserves and its protective cloak against Alzheimer’s disease. If you’re feeling comfortable, whatever you’re doing is not likely to be of extra benefit. If you’re feeling the strain on your brain, you should keep doing it (at least for a while).

Learning is important. But what’s crucial is that we keep levelling up.