News
25 July 2022

Keeping sharp in retirement

It’s a wise move to stay challenged and interested in the world around us in order to maintain an active and engaged mind. Let’s look at how we can help our brains, as well as our bodies, stay in top shape.

 

Physically fit

According to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, exercising for 45 minutes several times a week can boost cognitive function in those over 50. The analysis of 36 studies shows that aerobic and resistance exercises such as swimming or cycling of at least moderate intensity can improve brain power.

 

Tai chi or walking sports (such as walking football or walking netball) can be great ways to keep active without the higher risk of falling or getting injured (as comes with regular team sports).

 

Thinking skills

But what else can we do to protect our brains? Let’s first understand what the brain actually does. It manages all the unconscious and conscious functions, from regulating body temperature to controlling our balance, speech or movement. It’s also there to think, feel and sense. It’s these thinking skills that make us who we are and help us engage with the world around us. For example, it deals with decision-making, problem-solving, memory and language skills (among others). It’s these thinking skills we want to look after, particularly as we age.

 

According to Professor Alan Gow of Heriot-Watt University, the evidence for specific ‘brain training’ programmes remains inconclusive. The ‘use it or lose it’ idea may be why those products get so much attention, and although people get better at those brain training games, it’s still unclear whether those protect thinking skills in later life in any meaningful way. But it makes sense for our own sense of wellbeing that we continue to do hobbies and activities that we enjoy. Professor Alan’s advice says that if you do games and puzzles because you enjoy them, then certainly continue.

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New skills

The most beneficial activities for us in later life might be doing things we’ve never done before, or that continue to provide challenge. Although the evidence isn’t totally conclusive, it makes sense that the development of new skills has to be of benefit to us. Engagement with other groups of people could also be a great way to maintain quality of life and wellbeing in older age. So if you’re thinking about learning a new language, this could be an excellent idea for your cognitive thinking.

 

Others are taking up video gaming, web design or blogging. It’s a way to keep engaging with the online world while learning new skills, sharing knowledge and keeping your creativity going.

 

Lifestyle and genes

Professor Alan and his colleagues researched further by asking people whether they thought genes or lifestyles might determine changes in thinking skills in old age. Interestingly, those who believed lifestyles were more important than genes were more likely to feel improvement or maintenance of thinking skills was possible in later life. They were also more likely to say they knew what behaviours might be associated with thinking skills, and more likely to engage in behaviours that mentally challenged them or were novel. So, if you believe you have some control over your thinking skills, it’s likely you will!

Healthy diet

Another crucial part of maintaining an active brain is eating a healthy diet. Nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and flavonoids are linked to the maintenance of thinking skills in older age. On the contrary, high levels of saturated fat (dairy, meat etc.) are linked to worsening of thinking skills as we age. It’s always a good idea to follow any general nutritional advice from your doctor – most likely to eat a balanced diet, high in fruit and vegetable and low in saturated fat.

 

Sleep and overall health

Sleep is also vital to brain health, and prioritising a good night’s sleep is a great factor in maintaining brain health in later life. General health and socioeconomic status are critical factors when it comes to brain health.

 

Despite many retirees being worried about declines in cognitive functioning and the risk of dementia, there is a lack of data regarding cognitive functioning among older adults in Aotearoa. However, research conducted at Massey University shows that the cognitive functioning of older adults in New Zealand was greater than that of older people in the US. The older New Zealanders also reported higher levels of moderate exercise and better general health, however, these factors only explained some of the differences found between New Zealanders and older people in the US. Massey University research has also shown that loneliness seems to be a risk factor for dementia before any cognitive symptoms and diagnoses emerge.

 

 

 

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Photo of Kathy Catton
Written by:

Kathy Catton

Kathy Catton is a freelance writer and editor, based on the Banks Peninsula. She is an experienced feature writer, magazine editor and copywriter. Quick to grasp the crux of any story and tell it in plain English, Kathy enjoys bringing stories to readers that surprise and delight.

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