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.

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.