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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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.

Signs of cognitive decline that we should worry about

Aging successfully

It was recently reported that tip-of-the-tongue phenomena isn’t something that we need to worry excessively about.

It appears that older people have the experience of not being able to identify someone famous or find the name of something more frequently than younger people (“Tip-of-the-Tongue Moments May be Benign“, American Psychological Science, 16 Oct 2013). But it has been found to be unrelated to cognitive changes associated with onset of dementia, suggesting that we shouldn’t be too concerned when we can’t name an actor in the midst of our frenetic discussion of the current k-drama series during family reunion dinners.

In contrast, there are other signs which we should be paying attention to. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US) for example lists a number of symptoms which might indicate dementia, which include experiencing increased difficulty remembering recent conversations and appointments, performing complex tasks which involve a number of steps, orienting and finding one’s way to familiar places. The Alzheimer’s Association (US) lists 10 symptoms which distinguishes the signs that someone may have Alzheimer’s from that of typical age-related cognitive changes. Given that dementia is a progressive condition, where there is “deterioration in memory, thinking, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday activities” (WHO), these early stage signs serve as a useful guide. The tendency to confuse time and place, resulting in one going to an appointment at the wrong time or at the wrong place, is another such sign – mentioned here by the Health Promotion Board.

There is also much talk about a scan which may determine if one’s cognitive difficulties are caused by Alzheimer’s disease (“Alzheimer’s Anxiety“, NY Times, 16 Nov 2013). But perhaps more pressing for most of us is the issue of whether we’re experiencing cognitive difficulties which warrant a closer look. And the answer to that might just be in a 12-question pen-and-paper questionnaire (known as the SAGE) which has been found useful for discerning cognitive decline, and for which validity research findings were recently published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences and reported in this article in Forbes (14 Jan 2014).