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How to keep your brain active in later life

We often emphasise keeping physically active when we get older but keeping your brain sharp is just as important.

Reading, playing games, teaching or taking a class, volunteering and learning new skills can all keep the brain active, improving both memory and cognitive function.  But how does this work?

Here’s the science bit!

Experts[i] think these activities may protect the brain by establishing “cognitive reserve.” They may help the brain become more adaptable in some mental functions, so it can compensate for age–related brain changes and health conditions that affect the brain.

However, no one really knows, and current research is inconclusive as to how and why such activities improve your brain.

The charity, Age UK suggests there are a few possibilities why people who do more mentally stimulating activities have better thinking skills in older age. One possibility is that the mental demands involved in taking part in stimulating activities keep people’s thinking skills sharper.

But it could be the other way round: that people who have better thinking skills better in older age are more able to take part in more mentally demanding activities. They also suggest a third possibility – that people who do more mentally activities in older age had higher thinking skills to begin with.

Whatever the reasons, there are many benefits of doing mentally stimulating activities in later life, when combined with other things like diet and exercise.

So here are here are some ways to keep your brain young, courtesy of the Harvard Medical School[ii]:

Get mental stimulation

Mental stimulation can help build up your brain. This could involve reading, writing, doing crosswords and word games, play puzzles or take up a new skill or hobby. Anything that requires a degree of concentration will get your brain working!

Get physical exercise

It is a well-known fact exercise is great for people of all ages. Harvard Medical School highlights that using your muscles helps the mind too.  It is thought it can bring oxygen-rich blood to the region of the brain responsible for thought.

Exercise also spurs the development of new nerve cells and increases the connections between brain cells (synapses). This results in brains that are more efficient, plastic, and adaptive, which translates into better performance in ageing animals.

Exercise also lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, helps blood sugar balance and reduces mental stress, all of which can help your brain as well as your heart.

Improve your diet

Eating well is also key to helping your mind as well as your body. Some studies have highlighted that people who eat healthy diets such as the Mediterranean style diet are less likely to develop cognitive impairment and dementia.

Improve your blood pressure

Harvard Medical School says that high blood pressure in midlife increases the risk of cognitive decline in old age.  They recommend lifestyle modification to keep blood pressure as low as possible, including staying slim, exercise regularly, limit alcohol to two drinks a day and not to smoke, reduce stress, and eat healthily.

Care for your emotions

People who are anxious, depressed, sleep-deprived, or exhausted tend to score poorly on cognitive function tests. Poor scores don’t necessarily predict an increased risk of cognitive decline in old age, but good mental health and restful sleep are certainly important goals.

Build social networks

Group of happy older people

Strong social ties have been associated with a lower risk of dementia, as well as lower blood pressure and longer life expectancy, according to Harvard Medical School. We’ve also seen studies that suggest loneliness can be a big risk factor for older people.

The Campaign to End Loneliness, a UK based campaign group, has highlighted that lacking social connections is a comparable risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Loneliness is worse for us than well-known risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity increasing the likelihood of mortality by 26%.

So being social is good for both mental and physical health. For many of our customers the opportunities for an active social life are one of the benefits of living in our retirement developments. Communal lounges and gardens are ideal for socialising over a cuppa and many developments organise regular outings and events too!

Caring for both body and mind are essential as we get older. The old saying ‘use it or lose it’ couldn’t be more true!

[i] https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/cognitive-health-and-older-adults

[ii] https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/12-ways-to-keep-your-brain-young

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