POSTS

Optimism – one key to a longer life (October 2019)

Recent research claims people who ‘look on the bright side’ stand a better chance of both living longer and reaching the age of 85 or older. For many years, people who ‘see the glass as half full rather than half empty’ have previously been found to have a lower risk of developing, and living with, heart conditions and premature death. The researchers of this new study now say it could also play a role in living a long life. Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Lewina Lee, the lead author of the study at Boston University School of Medicine, said that.

“A lot of evidence suggests that exceptional longevity is usually accompanied by a longer span of good health and living without disability, so our findings raise an exciting possibility that we may be able to promote healthy and resilient ageing by cultivating psychosocial assets such as optimism.”  

Lee and colleagues analysed data from two previous long-term research projects, one involving female nurses and the other focused on a cohort of men. The nurses were assessed for optimism in 2004, with participants having an average age of 70, and followed until 2014. For men, optimism was assessed in 1986, participants having an average age of 62, and deaths tracked until 2016.  Comparing lifespan for the most optimistic with the least, and taking into account factors including age, sex, race, education, depression and other health conditions present at the outset, the results showed the most optimistic group of women had a lifespan almost 15% longer than the least. Similar results were seen in men through a different measurement technique. When the team compared the fifth of men boasting the highest optimism scores with the least optimistic, they found the most positive men had lifespans almost 11% longer.

People who are more optimistic might also lead a healthier lifestyle; therefore the analysis went on to take into account factors including exercise levels, diet, smoking and how much alcohol participants drank. The resulting effects were smaller – although still pronounced – with the most optimistic groups of both men and women having longer lifespans than the least optimistic. Dr Catherine Hurt, an expert in health psychology at City, University of London, said the study highlighted the importance of psychological wellbeing alongside physical wellbeing for living a long and healthy life.

 “The results suggest that as well as educating and encouraging people to eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly to maximise longevity we should also be promoting psychological wellbeing and the importance of optimism,” she said.

Elderly more screen-obsessed than the young (September 2019)

A recent report in The Economist reported on a study by Nielsen, an American market-research firm, which sought to find out the levels of screen time for various age groups. Researchers reported that millennials look at their phones more than 150 times a day, half of them check their devices during the night and a third glance at them immediately after waking up. However, when all screens are accounted for, it is in fact older people who seem most addicted. According to the report, Americans aged 65 and over spend nearly ten hours a day consuming media on their televisions, computers and smartphones. That is 12% more than Americans aged 35 to 49, and a third more than those aged 18 to 34.

When these findings are considered alongside research that being sedentary, being isolated and not engaging in challenging cognitive functions are features that harm the well-being of those in later life, some concerns are raised. Indeed research by Dr. Loretta DiPietro (published in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences in 2017) stated that TV viewing is a very potent risk factor for disability in older age. She stated that watching TV for long periods (especially in the evening) has got to be one of the most dangerous things that older people can do because they are much more susceptible to the damages of physical inactivity.

How is it then that those in later life spend so much time ‘on screen’ ? Here in the UK, one answer may well be the reduction in the use of social space and community interactions that lead to drastic effects on people’s lives, especially the elderly. A recent article by Aditya Chalrabortty in The Guardian (14th August) suggests that we are right in the middle of an infrastructure breakdown citing more than 760 youth clubs shutting across the UK since 2012, a pub closing every 12 hours and nearly 130 libraries being scrapped last year alone. In fact, those libraries that survive in England have lopped off 230,000 opening hours. In addition, public parks are disappearing, playgrounds are being sold off and high streets are being deserted while, in too many communities, the ‘banks have cleared out, the church has gone and all that’s left of the last pub is an empty hulk’. Under such conditions the American sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote:

 “People reduce the time they spend in public settings and hunker down in their safe houses. Social networks weaken. Crime rises. Older and sick people grow isolated. … Distrust rises and civic participation wanes.”

We know that such large amounts of screen time can have an adverse effect on people, especially those in later life who have reduced cognitive and social stimulae through features such as retirement and time spent on exercise due to ill health. However, if we reduce the opportunities and incentives for them to leave their houses and inhabit the social realm, we will be complicit in their actions as they remain too long on screen, unhealthily inactive and increasingly vulnerable.

Tickling your way to a healthier Later Life (August 2019)

During a recent small study in the School of Biomedical Sciences at Leeds University, researchers found that simply tickling the ear with a small electric current could rebalance the nervous system in people over the age of 55 and, in doing so, help them age more healthily. The scientists found that stimulation of the vagus nerve, which connects to the heart, lungs and gut, led to improvements in body, sleep and mood. They went on to claim that such a procedure could make a big difference to people's lives although more research is still needed.

The team concentrated on the ear because the ear is linked directly to the body's nervous system and one small branch of the vagus nerve can be stimulated through the skin in specific bits of the outer ear. This nerve transmits information from the brain to organs around the body, such as the heart and lungs. It is also fundamental to the body's autonomic nervous system that controls many of the body's functions, such as breathing, digestion, heart rate and blood pressure.

 As we get older, the balance of the body's nervous system can become impaired with the sympathetic branch, which helps the body prepare for high intensity "fight or flight" activity, beginning to dominate. Meanwhile, the parasympathetic branch, which is important for "rest and digest" activity, becomes less active. This makes people more prone to diseases, such as heart problems and hypertension, as well as depression and anxiety.

 During the research, 29 healthy volunteers aged 55 and over were subjected to electrical vagus nerve stimulation for 15 minutes a day for two weeks. The scientists found that the treatment led to an increase in parasympathetic activity and a decrease in sympathetic activity, helping to re-balance the body's nervous system. People who showed the greatest imbalance at the start of the study improved the most.

Supplements - Don't do it ! (July 2019)

I was reading a recent article by Steven DeKosky, a professor of Neurology at the University of Florida (June 20, 2019), who was discussing the fact that Americans and others around the world have turned increasingly to dietary supplements in order to maintain or preserve their brain health. He was pointing out that a recent study convened by AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired People) had in fact found that although, in America, a quarter of adults over 50 take a supplement for brain-related health, they should spend their money elsewhere. The stark conclusion was that supplements don’t work. This is no small issue as expenditures on non-vitamin brain health supplements in America alone amounts to billions of dollars that could be put toward other expenses, including fresh vegetables and fruit that do make a difference.

A lot of citizens are unaware that such supplements are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as it does not treat supplements like prescription medications. Supplements are not tested for accuracy of their stated ingredients by independent laboratories, and they overwhelmingly do not have the legitimate scientific evidence that would demonstrate that they are effective. Instead, the FDA relies on the manufacturers to test for the supplements’ safety, not for their efficacy. They are not subject to rigorous clinical trials that apply to prescription drugs.

Ginkgo biloba, for example, is a very popular supplement that many believe will help with brain health. It doesn’t. The worry about the ability of modern medicine to address brain health and offset conditions such as dementia have led people to look for other ways to protect their brains. However, there is no scientifically proven way to prevent Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Yet supplements have become a profitable area for companies to engage in. In fact, the overwhelming evidence shows that if you eat a normal diet you do not need to take supplementary vitamins or minerals either.

To make things even more concerning, many of these supplements do not always contain the compounds advertised and some of the mixtures can contain small amounts of harmful ingredients that have gotten into the product somewhere along the gathering and manufacturing process. So for those in later life tempted by supplements the advice is to focus on a healthy diet, and perhaps use some of the money directed at supplements toward buying more green, leafy vegetables and the other food components that make up good nutrition.

Towards Living Forever (June 2019)

 Gerontologists focus their attention on strategies to improve the quality of later life and, in doing so, average life expectancy has been increasing steadily over many years in many countries. However, life extensionists, or immortalists, hope to live indefinitely, or to push average life expectancy up to well over 100 years. Some extensionists are themselves scientific researchers at the forefront of gerontology working to overcome technical and practical difficulties of living longer. Others have no formal scientific background but are no less strongly committed to finding ways to prolong life.

 To do so they themselves engage in a wide variety of techniques such as sleeping on electromagnetic mats, taking large numbers of pills and supplements or carrying out particular exercise routines. One such extensionist is American investor James Strole who established the Coalition for Radical Life Extension - a non-profit organisation with the objective to invigorate support for science of later life that may significantly prolong human life some day in the future. Such life extensionists are increasing in number and include many wealthy individuals who consider death to be undesirable and who wish to use their wealth and influence to seek longer and longer lives. Although death remains inevitable, resources are now being targeted at finding way to significant delay it and, potentially, to eradicate it all together.

 However, it is accepted that no one single longevity strategy exists but believers feel that the extreme practices they indulge in work and further innovations are coming. However, countering such optimism and reliance on life-preserving strategies is the fact that the oldest person to have lived, Jeanne Calment, reached 122 while smoking until she was 117. So until such breakthroughs exist, we should, perhaps, reply on the most proven successful life-extension methods; sleeping well, eating well, exercising regularly, reducing stress and relying on modern medicine. Such an approach has, after all, prolonged average lifespans significantly over the past 150 years.

The Power of a Little Work (May 2019)

Here at Long Life Learning, we have consistently extolled the benefits of those in later life remaining active – mentally, socially and physically. One area that all three components of a better life often come together is at work. Now new research has identified that the benefits of employment on mental health might be gained from just one day’s work a week. It has long been understood that unemployment has been linked to poorer mental health. Not only are the components above not been gleaned through lack of work, other benefits such as giving structure to daily life, forming strong social contacts and retaining a sense of identity are lost. These factors are also features of the life of many people as they move into retirement.

Writing in the journal Social Science and Medicine, Brendan Burchell, a co-author of the research from the University of Cambridge, describes how they came to their conclusions by analysing responses to a UK survey conducted every year. This research began in 2009, and since that time data has been gathered from more than 71,000 people aged from 16 to 64 who gave answers for two or more years. On analysis, the researchers identified a positive impact on mental health on moving from unemployment to a paid job, and that this boost is gained from working up to eight hours, or about one day, a week.

Interestingly, the researchers could identify no extra mental health benefit from working longer than these eight hours, which is particularly pertinent to those in later life who, for a number of reasons such as declining health or caring responsibilities or tax thresholds, would not want a full-time post. Naturally, the study has limitations, including that it does not prove that work fuels better mental health, only that they are linked. It also does not identify if unpaid voluntary work is as effective as paid employment at benefitting mental health. Nevertheless, maintaining a connection with society in this way into later life is now shown not just to be beneficial but also measurable.

Study in Later Life – for Society’s Sake (April 2019)

The banker Philip Augar, appointed by the government to lead a review of further and higher education in England, recently released his findings and they included ideas on how to reinvigorate lifelong learning. In doing so, he was at pains to point out that education beyond the age of 18 must not be solely about teenagers going on to university. However, he does so at a time when mature students are an increasingly rare species. A career change later in life is something that most working people can’t afford and, ironically, it’s those who most need to retrain (those with the least education, in low skilled jobs facing increasing technological change) who cannot afford to do so.

A number of commentators have pointed out that this review coincides with the 100th anniversary, in 1919, of the Ministry of Reconstruction’s adult education committee’s Report on Adult Education, arguing that a population educated throughout life was vital for the future of the country. The report set the groundwork for British adult education during the 20th century and in doing so it recognised that education doesn’t just change individuals’ lives, but society too. This contrasts markedly with the bare minimum provided now in Britain consisting mainly of basic literacy or numeracy for jobseekers and basic English courses for non-native speakers.

Research has already shown the value of learning for learning’s sake in a civilised society with people who take part in any kind of structured learning being more likely to volunteer, to show tolerance rather than racial prejudice and even to give up harmful habits such as smoking.  However, despite some 40% of people in England over 25 not having qualifications beyond GCSE, with many far below that level, the likelihood of a second chance is non-existent through the drastic reduction in locally provided opportunities. In his report, Philip Augar went on to propose a lifetime learning ‘loan’ for people who don’t already have degrees, which could be spent in fits and starts over the years on technical qualifications or further training rather than on university. He also advocates the restoration of the right for any adult who doesn’t already have A-levels or their equivalent to study for these free of charge. Not exactly radical but in this climate of austerity and cuts to education, he may as well be asking for the moon.

Even A Little Exercise Does You Good (March 2019)

 Vigorous exercise may be much harder to do for those in later life and, for some, it might just be impossible. However, a recent piece of research, set out in the journal Jama Network Open, has identified that even light activity, which could involve household chores, might help to keep the brain young. This research adds to a growing body of evidence that, when it comes to exercise, every little helps.

 The researchers worked out from, their research sample of volunteers, that  individuals’ brain volume, a measure linked to ageing, reduces by about 0.2% every year after the age of 60. Loss or shrinkage of brain tissue is linked to dementia, However, after taking into account factors including sex, smoking status and age, the team found that every extra hour of light physical activity per day was linked to 0.22% greater brain volume, equal to just over a year’s less brain ageing. Dr. Nicole Spartarno, first author of the study from Boston University, said “Our study results don’t discount moderate or vigorous physical activity as being important for healthy ageing. We are just adding to the science, suggesting that light-intensity physical activity might be important too, especially for the brain.”

 The UK chief medical officer will shortly be issuing advice, to mirror existing US guidelines, to say that light activity or very short bouts of exercise are beneficial to health – even if it is just a minute or two at a time – countering the previous view that there was a threshold that must be reached before there were significant benefits. Dr. Spartano went on to say that, even if true, that did not mean people should stop trying to break a sweat. “Higher levels of fitness are linked to longevity and a better quality of life in older age, not to mention being associated with lower rates of dementia.” Finally, Dr James Pickett, head of research at Alzheimer’s Society, was reported in The Guardian (19th April 2019) confirming that, in general, exercise reduces the risk of such conditions such as dementia. and he went on to say “Don’t worry if you’re not hill-running, but find something you enjoy and do it regularly, because we know that what’s good for the heart is good for the head.”

The Good Living Habit (February 2019)

 Only last year, researchers at Harvard University reported the outcomes from using lifestyle questionnaires and medical records from 123,000 volunteers to understand how much longer people lived if they followed a healthy diet, controlled their weight, took regular exercise, drank in moderation and did not smoke. It was only afterwards, when the scientists calculated average life expectancy, that they noticed a dramatic effect from the healthy habits. Compared with people who adopted none of them, men and women who adhered to all five saw their life expectancy at 50 rise from 26 to 38 years and 29 to 43 years respectively, or an extra 12 years for men and 14 for women!

 Meir Stampfer, a co-author on the study, and professor of epidemiology and nutrition, said that although it might have been expected that people who adopted these habits would live longer, the size of effect was a real surprise. In other words, people who stick to five healthy habits in adulthood can add more than a decade to their lives. The researchers performed the analysis in the hope of understanding why the US, which spends more on healthcare as a proportion of GDP than any other nation, ranks 31st in the world for life expectancy at birth. Only 8% of the general population follows all five healthy habits – a similar pattern to that of the UK population.

 The five healthy habits were defined as not smoking; having a body mass index between 18.5 and 25; taking at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, having no more than one 150ml glass of wine a day for women, or two for men; and having a diet rich in items such as fruit, vegetables and whole grains and low in red meat, saturated fats and sugar. Men and women who had such healthy lives were 82% less likely to die of heart disease and 65% less likely to die of cancer compared with those with the least healthy lifestyles, over the roughly 30 years of the study.

 Given that the habits of a healthy lifestyle are well known, the mystery is why we are so bad at adopting them as habits. Professor Stampfer suggested that part of the problem is that many people struggle to give up habits such as smoking, and the continuous peddling of unhealthy food, as well as poor urban planning, can make it hard for people to exercise too. In other words, it requires both people taking some personal responsibility and society making it easier for people to do just that.

Solving the crossword puzzle conundrum (January 2019)

Looking along the packed shelves in bookshops recently, I was struck by the number and variety of books that offered ways to avert memory loss. Many of these were specifically aimed at ‘older people’ and most offered some form of challenge. These were usually in the form of puzzle-solving with the expressed value that tackling such challenges would help to avoid ‘mental decline’ and ‘keep the mind active’. They included tasks such as answering Mensa questions, addressing Sudoku-type problems and both word search and crossword-solving activities. Some even suggested that addressing ‘mental workout’ on a regular, usually daily, basis could offset dementia.

I have long been skeptical of such claims, as I could find no scientific evidence that such activity alone could have these desired, and desirable, effects. Now recent research from Scotland showed that although people who regularly do intellectual activities throughout life have higher mental abilities from which to decline than non-participants, they don’t decline any slower. This research was undertaken by research staff at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and the University of Aberdeen and published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) towards the end of last year. Using a control group of about 500 volunteers (all born in 1936 and who had taken part in a group intelligence test at the age of 11) they found that engagement in problem solving did not protect an individual from decline.

On the plus side, the researchers did find that engaging in intellectually stimulating activities on a regular basis was linked to level of mental ability in old age. And while some previous studies have found that cognitive training can improve some aspects of memory and thinking, particularly for people who are middle-aged or older, no studies have shown that brain training alone prevents dementia. Instead, as a report from the Global Council on Brain Health recommended, and what has been recommended by longlifelearning.co.uk over many years, is that people should take part in stimulating activities such as learning a new language or musical instrument or taking up knitting or cooking or gardening rather than just brain training to help their minds to continue to function well into later life. Such activity though should be accompanied by other life-style choices such as keeping physically fit (eating a healthy diet, not smoking, drinking in moderation and keeping within recommended weight limits), engaging in social activities and maintaining wellbeing by being involved in a volunteering or other altruistic activities. We now know what to do to keep our brains functioning well into later life and it requires much more effort than just doing the daily crossword puzzle.

Build That Body, Build That Life (December 2018)

Consistent reports from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) indicate the rapid ageing of the population in the UK, which mirrors the trend in the world as a whole. At the same time, as clearly stated on the National Health Service (nhs) website, frailty among this growing cohort of older adults is also growing. Frailty is often described as ‘a state of physiological vulnerability with diminished capacity to manage external stressors’. Such frailty can affect people’s ability to carry out everyday activities, can have a negative impact on quality of life and can increase the risk of other health problems including illnesses and falls. The website goes on to say that studies estimate frailty affects around half of people above the age of 80.

The question raised by such a situation is how to provide effective care and support once people have been identified. Now a study by researchers at the University of Dublin has been undertaken to answer this question by reviewing 46 individual studies on the effectiveness of different interventions for frailty. The studies were highly varied with interventions ranging from different forms of physical activity to medication, education and nutrition supplements. Published in the British Journal of General Practice, the findings showed conclusively just how much older people benefit from increased strength or resistance training by working their muscles and increasing their protein intake, even through drinking protein shakes. The benefits were so noticeable that they recommended that GPs should prescribe it. They go on to say that 20 to 25 minutes of activity, four days a week at home, with an emphasis on a high-protein diet, is probably ideal.

Such an approach was one advocated some time ago by Chris Crowley and Dr. Henry Lodge in their book Younger Next Year first published in 2004. They stressed the value to older people of carrying on with, or taking up, resistance training in later life.  However, they tried to put this advice in perspective for older people saying that although weights are satisfying, even mildly addictive for some, they are not fun for most people. Instead they advocated finding a strength sport that you like such as bicycling, skiing, tennis, squash or canoeing.

Throughout their book, Crowley and Lodge advocate both aerobic and strength-building exercise. Unfortunately, they say, only a minority of older Americans claim they do regular aerobic training and even less, only 10% of Americans at the time of writing, claim to be doing any form of strength training regularly. Their advice: carry out strength training two days a week throughout the life span and such an approach should have a positive effect on combating the onset of frailty. They summarise their advice by saying that ‘aerobic exercise saves your life: strength training makes it worth living’. Advice, you might say, well worth building on.

Learning Not Loneliness (November 2018)

A recent BBC survey on loneliness, carried out by Radio 4’s All in the Mind programme, asked about ways of combatting loneliness, which ‘had worked for you or people you know’. Two of the nine suggestions involved finding distracting activities or dedicating time to work, study or hobbies while some people suggested joining a social club or taking up new social activities. The reasoning being that if loneliness is caused by not meeting people in the community, this might help.

Much research over recent times has identified the cognitive, psychological and social benefits to be accrued from learning in later life and this survey suggests those suffering from the negative effects of loneliness could benefit too. Loneliness, of course, differs from being alone - people choose, and can often enjoy, time alone with themselves to act or to think while loneliness is an often unwanted condition affecting those who wish to be more social. It might be argued that not only does this survey support educational gerontology (learning in later life) but also gerontological education (learning how to understand and manage ageing). For example, the survey goes on to identify other suggestions to combat loneliness such as changing negative thinking to make it more positive as on measurement, lonely people were found to have social skills as good as everyone else’s but might need help to cope with the anxiety of situations. It also suggested such people should start a conversation with anyone as a significant first step. The idea of this isn’t to build a deep friendship but just to feel more connected to other humans. One other strongly supported idea to overcome loneliness was to look for the good in every person you meet as people who feel lonely have, on average, lower levels of trust in others.

However, there is a role for groups of such people to come together and to learn or re-learn how to act on such suggestions and perhaps gain the skills and confidence to do so. There is an assumption that we know how to cope with the often-novel situations many people find themselves as a result of ageing with loneliness, caused by loss of a partner or friends, the moving away of family or conditions negating participation ,such as ill-health, being just one of them. All these symptoms are more likely to affect those in later life more often and more strongly. So let’s not just promote learning in later life (educational gerontology) but also learning about ageing well (gerontological education) if older people are to participate fully in life and enjoy themselves doing so with others too.

Growing Brainier Every Day (October 2018)

According to the associate professor of neurobiology at Columbia University, Maura Boldrini, the lead author on a newly released study, healthy older people continue to produce new brain cells. These findings contradict other studies, including one published in March this year. The work of the researchers at Columbia involved carrying out autopsies on 28 healthy brains, which had been donated by people who had no neuropsychiatric disease or treatment affecting the brain. The identification of neurogenesis, the process by which neurons or nerve cells continue to be generated in the brain, as people get older means researchers are better able to understand why things can go wrong, like with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, as we age.

No previous study has looked at neurogenesis in humans who had no neuropsychiatric disease or treatment at time of death, and previous studies, carried out with mice, had shown that neurogenesis declines after middle age. Humans, however, have much more complex learning abilities and emotional responses than rodents, both of which may depend on neurogenesis. New neurons in the hippocampus part of the brain are necessary for memory and emotional responses to stress. Our brain keeps making new neurons throughout our lifespan, and this is unique to humans. These neurons might be important for humans to transmit complex information to future generations or integrating complex memories and information.

Professor Boldrini believes that previous negative studies have come about as a result of a few factors. One is the availability of only portions of the hippocampus, so the total number of cells could not be calculated accurately. Secondly, not knowing the subjects’ disease and treatment history, which affect neurogenesis, can make it difficult to evaluate results. Finally and positively, the research team concludes that with a healthy lifestyle, enriched environment, social interactions, and exercise, we can keep these neurons healthy and functioning and sustain healthy ageing. 

Habits of a Lifetime (August 2018)

According to a major study into the impact behaviour has on lifespan, people who stick to five healthy habits in adulthood can add more than a decade to their lives. Using lifestyle questionnaires and medical records, researchers at Harvard University worked with 123,000 volunteers to understand how much longer people lived if they followed a healthy diet, controlled their weight, took regular exercise, drank in moderation and did not smoke.

The scientists compared people who adopted the healthy habits to those who did not and noticed a dramatic difference in average life expectancy, Men and women who adhered to all five, compared with people who adopted none of the habits, saw their life expectancy at 50 rise from 26 to 38 years and from 29 to 43 years respectively. This equates to an extra 12 years for men and 14 years for women. The researchers were surprised how huge the effect was.

The researchers performed the analysis in the hope of understanding why the United States, a country that spends more on healthcare as a proportion of GDP than any other nation, ranks only 31st in the world for life expectancy at birth. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), life expectancy at birth in 2015 in the US was 76.9 and 81.6 years old for men and women respectively. The equivalent figures for Britain are very similar at 79.4 and 83 years old. The study, published in the journal Circulation, suggests poor lifestyle is a major factor that cuts American lives short. In fact, only 8% of the general population followed all five healthy habits.

The five healthy habits were defined as not smoking; having a body mass index between 18.5 and 25; taking at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, having no more than one 150 ml glass of wine a day for women or two for men and having a diet rich in items such as fruit, vegetables and whole grains but low in red meat, saturated fats and sugar.

These findings are very welcome and point the way to having a longer life. What they do not do, however, is address the cognitive and psychological aspects that make life worth living. These five habits can all have a positive affect on helping to ensure the brain is less likely to loose its ‘power’ but activities such as learning can in fact help to strengthen brain power and, if ailments such as dementia arise, enable the brain to better resist their debilitating effects. At the same time, observing the five habits in isolation or living with negative feelings may not help people to live well and thrive. Therefore, the five habits may help people to live longer but without cognitive development through, say, learning and supportive health and wellbeing activities through, for example, social engagement, they may not be enough. After all, remaining alive is not the same thing as being able to enjoy living.

Take a Weight off your Mind (June 2018)

 Recent medical research has shown that as we mature our brains operate a more organised system of networks with improved communication between different regions of the brain. Those regions deep in the brain are fully operational significantly earlier than the more sophisticated centres such as the prefrontal cortex. Consequently there is an uneven balance, tilting behaviour more towards immediate reward and risk as the still underactive prefrontal cortex will not apply the ‘brake’ to the immediate reactive ‘go’ signal firing off in more primitive areas.

This behaviour is evident in children and teenagers where the brain is still ‘maturing’ but, according to Susan Greenfield, in her book A Day in the Life of the Brain, it can persist into adulthood too. It has long been a characteristic of schizophrenic patients who never appear to lose aspects of the immediate brain. Both childhood and schizophrenia, then, conjure up a sense of living in the moment rather than a more thoughtful and proactive take on life.

However, according to Professor Greenfield, there is a third and unexpected group of people with an underactive prefrontal cortex who are characteristically reckless; those with a relatively high body mass index (BMI), namely the obese. For the significantly overweight, the press of the here-and-now environment is once again, as with children and schizophrenics, unusually paramount. After all, such people know the long-term consequences of eating unhealthily yet the immediate pleasure of the taste wins out over everything else and they choose to do so anyway.

It is interesting to think of how this new information could shine a spotlight on the behaviours of adults in, for example, voting patters. Is it possible that the significantly overweight would opt for choices offered for immediate gain, real or imaginary, over those offering benefits only in the long-term? Could this be characterised as making choices for their own immediate gratification over the future benefits for others or society as a whole? After voting has taken place, the results are often analysed to identify which groups of people, females, the rich, the elderly etc., have voted in which direction or another. Perhaps, we should do this by weight, as the consequence of such votes can be ‘heavy’.

Homework is for Adults ! (April 2018)

A recent announcement by Jane Austen College in Norwich that it was stopping setting homework for their pupils raised quite a few eyebrows, especially in certain sections of the press. After all, this was a ‘flagship’ Free School with a strong work ethic and not a failing school that could not get their pupils to do the homework to start with. The reason given was that the pupils already worked hard enough, that such work should be covered in extended school time and that evenings should be spent with family.

There is much to admire in this stance. Anyone who has ever been to school will have found that homework merely reinforces what the teacher already knows the pupils in their classes can and cannot do. Far better to have additional time in schools (Prep, perhaps?) where the teacher can work more individually with pupils than to set them off to face the unequal resources in their homes and the uneven support available from parents and others. Such work is then judged in isolation afterwards – whoever has actually done it !

This also set my mind to thinking about later life learners. In schools, teachers have the benefit of seeing their pupils everyday and, in most subjects, a few times per week. There is plenty of time for reinforcement and the correction of errors. Older learners, and especially those in informal learning, turn up to sessions once a week (if they can) for about and hour or two. They then have to remember the following week what they had done before and, if possible, enhance their learning further at a time when short-term memory can wane.

What is needed is some task to do between sessions that can provide the repetition we know aids memory, reminds each of the learners about the language and thinking involved and, if done with other learners or family members, can better embed such learning in their minds. Children don’t need homework to learn in their regular, structured and supported school careers. However, older people need such help to get the best out of learning in later life. So let’s not waste homework on children; homework is for adults !

Murder May Save Your Life! (February 2018)

 Those old board games, lying and collecting dust on the top of the wardrobe or under the stairs, could in fact bring remarkable benefits. Not only are such games very entertaining, especially when played with others, they also offer a lot more than just entertainment. In fact they can impact on a player’s mental and physical health and their wellbeing whatever age they are.

 First of all, board games are good for maintaining and improving mental health. Playing games help to use and develop important cognitive skills including memory and analysis. The analytical part of the brain, the hippocampus, is particularly exercised during decision-making. At the same time, board games help the brain to build and retain cognitive associations, which are very beneficial in old age. Keeping your mind engaged in this way, even focusing on manipulating small playing pieces, means players are exercising it and making it stronger. Such a stronger brain has a lower risk of losing its power. Research has also shown that participants who regularly play games have speeded up responses compared to those that don’t.

Playing board games, as with many hobbies, is fun to do and can help to reduce stress. Taking part helps players to unwind and to relax especially where the focus is more on taking part than winning at all costs. Such enjoyment often involves laughing, which itself helps to increase the body’s supply of endorphins - chemicals that promote the feeling of happiness.  They also help muscles to relax and blood to circulate resulting in the lowering of blood pressure. It is well known that high blood pressure is associated with greater risk of artery damage, heart disease and strokes.

Finally, board games such as Monopoly, chess, Game of Life or draughts, provide ideal opportunities to connect with family members or friends. They are social occasions, helping to build bonds, especially with children and grandchildren, and strengthening relationships at a variety of levels. Board games are particularly good at helping children to develop logic and reasoning skills and improve critical thinking too. The laughter and enjoyment taking place can help to boost a person’s immune system helping brain cells to live longer and be more able to fight disease. Therefore, playing board games such as Cluedo, the game of mystery and ‘murder’, is not only an enjoyable thing to do, it could help to prolong your life!

Enough is Enough (December 2017)

The ‘Paradise Papers’ are a huge leak of financial documents that throw light on the top end of the world of offshore finance. They mainly come from Appleby, a law firm with outposts in Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey, who provide the structures to help clients to legally reduce their tax bills. The documents reveal the lengths that some people go to in order to avoid paying tax. Whatever the rights and wrongs, legally and morally, of such actions what is clear is that it is those people who already have a great deal of wealth who are seeking to retain more. In doing so, however, they deny governments of funds to support everyone in their societies including the poorest.

One way of ensuring that those in need in the world receive the ‘service’ they require, a basic tenant of Rotary ethos, is for individuals not to grasp too much for themselves. The Swedes appreciate such a concept and, in fact, have a word for it. It is ‘lagom’. Kathleen Bryson, an evolutionary anthropologist at University College London, described the Swedish 'lagom' as a state of having 'not too much of one-or-the-other, but more a Goldilocks 'just right'.' Elliot Stocks, the co-editor and creative director of Bristol-based magazine Lagom told the publication that 'Lagom is an overarching concept behind your life in general. Rather than fitting a bit of lagom into your day, it's more about your approach to your life as a whole,' he added.

Over the last six months, the search engine Google has seen a steady increase in the number of UK searches for the term 'lagom' and, unsurprisingly, the word has inspired several consumer companies to jump on the terminology to make life easier, more enjoyable and inexpensive. For example, Swedish furniture store IKEA has created its own project ‘Live Lagom’ to teach people how to make life more sustainable. IKEA products are designed and produced to help them conserve energy, save water, reduce waste, and live a healthier lifestyle – all in keeping with the concept of 'lagom'.

For many years, and for many people now in later life, the driving force has been to accumulate money and possessions for themselves without necessarily caring about the consequences that doing so may have for others. This new movement of valuing sufficiency itself so there is enough for all chimes with the ancient Greek phrase ‘moderation is best’. It may just be that those people named in the Paradise Papers have more wealth but by not embracing the ‘lagom’ way of living, they may not have the ‘best’ life.

Have a hobby – it can add years to your life (October 2017)

It was pleasing to read that recent research has found that simply having a ‘sense of purpose’ as you get older can help you live a longer and healthier life. It has been well know that keeping fit, eating well and avoiding smoking are all helpful in having a longer life but experts have now shown that just by living a purposeful life – whether it is helping others or having an absorbing hobby – are just as important. People with the greatest sense of wellbeing after the age of 65 are almost a third less likely to die in the next eight and a half years. This means they will live on average two years longer than those who feel they have no satisfaction or companionship in their life.

Professor Andrew Steptoe, Director of the University College London Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, who led the research said: “A healthy lifestyle is important, as are relationships with family and friends. Finding things to do that give a sense of purpose is also important. They don’t have to be very grand aims, but might include things like gardening and hobbies, or helping out a neighbour.

The study, looking at thousands of people with an average age of 65, was conducted by researchers from UCL, and US universities was part of a special series on ageing published in the Lancet. After eight and a half years, nine per cent of people in the highest wellbeing category had died compared with 29 per cent in the lowest category. Once all other factors were taken into account, people with the highest wellbeing were 30 per cent less likely to die.

So simply being a member of altruistic organisations such as Rotary, with its friendship groups, opportunities to learn new things and chances to volunteer to help others, are not only good for those we serve but good for ourselves too.

 Writing Better (August 2017)

For a long time I have been interested in graphology – how a person’s handwriting can tell you a lot about their personality and character. It is based on the premise that as the brain guides the hand, so your handwriting becomes a ‘picture’ of your ‘complete self’ - the person behind the pen. Therefore, graphology uses the analysis of handwriting to identify the traits, talents and the emotional energy of the writer.

The earliest example of systematic writing is the Sumerian pictographic system found on clay tablets around 3200 BC. At the same time the Egyptian system of hieroglyphics began as a pictographic script and evolved into a system of syllabic writing. The Greeks and then the Romans adopted the Greek alphabet and developed Latin writing and cursive or informal handwriting.

At the end of the eighth century, Emperor Charlemagne decreed that all writings in his empire were to be written in a standard handwriting and a cursive form eventually developed. By the eighteenth century, schools were established to teach penmanship especially in England and the United States. Writing systems developed in China and Japan too with letters that represent more characters and are visually far more complex

Recently, research using advanced tools such as magnetic resonance imaging have identified that the simple, and underused, art of handwriting benefits motor skills and the ability to compose ideas. Researchers are finding that writing by hand is more than just a way to communicate. The practice helps with learning letters and shapes and can improve idea composition and expression. Some physicians say handwriting could be a good cognitive exercise for those in later life to keep their minds sharp as they age. Studies suggest there's real value in learning and maintaining this ancient skill, even as we increasingly communicate electronically via keyboards big and small. Indeed, technology often gets blamed for handwriting's demise but in an interesting twist, new software for touch-screen devices, such as the IPad, is starting to reinvigorate the practice.

Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key. She says pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information. So writing of all kinds can be good for you, handwriting is even better and it also provides a way of revealing more about you – whether you mean to or not.

 Volunteering - the Icing and the Cake (June 2017)

 Much good work is done in the world, and many people helped, by those who volunteer. From the eradication of polio through the raising of funds to the keeping of local hospices operational, volunteers can do everything from adding value to saving lives. It is a way of people helping others, whether directly or indirectly, and displaying the best of humanity locally and wider. It really does add the rich icing to the fabric of society’s cake.

Research has also shown that there are significant benefits to those who volunteer too. Often the main benefit that volunteers claim is the satisfaction and rewarding feeling that they receive from helping someone in need. This can really enhance their feelings and wellbeing. Some volunteers can also gain a specific experience and skill set that can help them to remain mentally active in later life. For younger people, such experiences and new skills can be an asset when seeking employment or further learning opportunities.

Academic studies have also concluded that, on some level, certain voluntary work can help promote an individual's physical and mental health, especially for the more elderly generations. Feeling useful and having a productive role in society can often offset the negative feelings that can come with retirement from work or the loss of caring duties, either for a family or for others in need. Finally, conducting voluntary work often broadens a person’s horizons too and helps them to grow in both social intelligence and awareness. 

Therefore, volunteering can enhance society on so many levels, benefitting both the people being helped and the volunteers themselves. As long as the individual enjoys the volunteering, voluntary work can be considered a win--win scenario. However, increasingly in schools, hospitals or parks, volunteering is replacing paid work – being the cake rather than the icing. In such cases, without the volunteers, such services would hardly function or would disappear altogether. For example, since 2010, in England, almost 8,000 library jobs have disappeared – about a quarter of the total – and over 400 libraries have been closed or plan to close. Another 234 libraries have been transferred to community groups or other external organisations to run. Some 15,500 volunteers have been recruited to replace these paid staff. Renowned author Philip Pullman (The Dark Materials) articulated the concerns of many saying: “I am in favour of volunteering, but relying on volunteers to provide a service that ought to be statutory is not a good policy.”

Therefore, it is clear that there is much good that comes from volunteering both for those in need and those volunteering to help. It has become a significant and welcome part of the fabric of British life. This is especially true for those in later life who volunteer in great numbers and benefit greatly as a result. However, in doing so, it is worth asking the question whether that participation enhances the provision or whether it replaces it altogether. It may not matter in the short term, when people’s needs are most urgent, but it may be significant in the longer term, Volunteering is already shaping the way many communities and societies work and not always for the better.

 Work Yourself Fit (April 2017)

As people get older it is harder to run marathons and race up and down the swimming lanes. However, we do know that exercise helps older people to keep healthy and keep unhelpful weight at bay. For many, such exercise itself is simply not enjoyable and for others not possible. However, such strenuous pastimes are not the only way to keep fit and burn calories. Housekeeping and gardening can also help you keep off the pounds. Here are some calorie-burning home and garden chores, with estimated hourly calorie-burn rates for an average person. They are only estimates, of course, as each person dusts, cleans or mows at a different pace and burns a different number of calories.

Digging and raking leaves not only burn a lot of calories but also can help tone muscles in arms and legs. Indeed, 30 minutes of digging in the garden can burn about 315 calories, the same amount burned by 45 minutes of bicycling on a flat surface. Weeding for 30 minutes can burn 115 calories, the same amount burned in 15 minutes of weight training. Raking leaves for 30 minutes can burn 225 calories with the resistance offered by leaves making this task a type of weight training. Simply washing your own car, or helping others to wash theirs, works our abdominal muscles and every 30 minutes of car washing can burn 143 calories.

Housework also helps to burn calories. For example, scrubbing the bath or bathroom tiles for 30 minutes can burn 200 calories and carrying shopping bags for 30 minutes can burn 190 calories, more if the bags are particularly heavy. Making beds for 30 minutes can burn 130 calories, the same number used if you jogged on a treadmill for 15 minutes. Cleaning windows for 30 minutes can burn 125 calories, the same number used in 20 minutes of power yoga while vacuuming for 30 minutes can burn about 90 calories, the same amount burned in 15 minutes of kick-boxing. Finally, simply climbing stairs for 30 minutes can burn about a significant 285 calories.

The calories burned while you're doing household chores can really add up in terms of calories burned. So if you don't have time to pump weights at the gym, or attend Pilates classes, or even have the inclination to do so, then substitute them with everyday household tasks or jobs in the garden. As people get older, there is a natural inclination to employ someone else to do such tasks but there are significant benefits from do such work yourself if you can. It can stretch and tone your muscles and can burn up to 315 calories an hour - that's more than twice as many as we would burn up sitting in front of the television.

 Talking too quietly about libraries (February 2017)

The report produced following the national review of public libraries conducted by William Sieghart on behalf of the government makes interesting reading for later life learners. The outcomes have been widely welcomed and it is hard to argue with too much of what it says and suggests. However, the question is, will the proposed changes make things better for those in later life?

While not acting against the current cuts to public sector funding, it commits itself to a thriving service and suggests it remains in the hands of local authorities as now rather than as a national service as in many countries. It does, however, propose greater collaboration and co-operation between them although this would be on a voluntary basis. It passionately states that, “the library does more than simply loan books. It underpins every community.” with which most people would whole-heartedly agree. However, it does little to suggest how that situation might be preserved or enhanced in the future.

The report goes on to stress the need for digital upgrades in libraries including installing wifi, involving ebooks and elending and training staff in their use. Although vital, some commentators have seen this as a way of saving money on books and other types of resources and some fear it might mitigate the need to visit libraries in person. The report also looks at communities, charities and not-for-profit companies as future leaders of libraries and praises the use of volunteers. It does so, however, in a balanced way and recognises the question of the long-term viability of using such organisations and people.

Much of the media led with the suggestion of putting in coffee bars but this is only one small aspect albeit one to consider. We already have many coffee bars – what we lack are places for people in later life to go to learn. In fact, overall, there is a lack of emphasis on learning. If learning is thought of as just reading books, then books are plentiful being either cheap in charity shops or free through other organisations. It is learning that will sustain wellbeing and mental capacity into later life and this is best done communally, thoughtfully and actively. So let’s start with libraries as the ‘centre for learning for all’ with all staff trained in effective learning techniques across the age range; and if that involves reading books or drinking coffee as well, that’s’ fine.

It’s not an ‘age thing’ (December 2016)

When in office, it was reported that the then Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, was red-faced after forgetting the name of a Labour Party business supporter in an interview with BBC Newsnight. "His surname has just gone from my head, which is a bit annoying,” he said at the time. He described Bill Thomas, the person who aided the drawing up of the party's small business policies, as simply "Bill" and when pressed could not give his surname.

This is understandable as everyone forgets things from time to time, at any age, and especially in relatively stressful situations such as an interview. I remember thinking at the time that what is not understandable, nor forgivable, is that a day later Mr. Balls tweeted to excuse his memory slip by stating, "It's an age thing!"

This is exactly the ill-informed and lazy approach to later life, and those in it, that leads to such stereotyping of older people. It would not, perhaps have been ‘acceptable’ for Mr. Balls to say he was ‘stressed’ or ‘overworked’ or ‘tired’ as these may be construed as signs of weakness. However, he sights getting older when there is no evidence that unless you are suffering from specific conditions or illnesses that you should not retain a good memory.

For Mr. Balls to state such a thing at the tender age of 47 is inexcusable. What does it say about his understanding of the ageing process and especially about those still working or holding positions of responsibility way beyond his comparatively young age? His remarks may not been meant to be taken too seriously but words spoken in such a way often reveal underlying prejudices and can have more serious consequences.

I suggest he is honest with himself and others about the effects on memory of the workload associated with his life and position and has a serious discussion about work-life balance and reasonable expectations. He should also apologise to those ‘of an age’ for being condescending and instead celebrate the great contribution they make. Really, it’s an honesty thing !

 It IS Brain Science (October 2016)

A century ago, scientists were only really able to study the brain when it was non-living. In other words when it had been removed following a post-mortem. However, scientific progress has been rapid since that time and many great discoveries and inventions have happened, especially in the last 50 years. Now we have developed a range of instruments and techniques to enable us to study the human brain when it, and the body it’s in, are both living.

Most of these tools are based on the principle that brain cells transmit information in the form of ‘electrical impulses’. When they ‘fire’ they send a signal that can be detected and recorded as images. The first use of such techniques occurred using probes on the brains of volunteers undergoing open skull surgery to cure epilepsy. This is possible because the brain contains no pain receptors and so the patient can be kept awake feeling no pain. It was found that stimulating small regions of the brain affected different senses and actions and even the recalling of vivid memories from childhood.

However, more non-invasive ways of evaluating brain activity have now been created. One way is using the knowledge that the electrical impulses, as they move in brain cells, generate magnetic fields. These can be measured outside the head and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanners use magnetism to look at the different magnetic properties of various parts of the brain. Other techniques use radioactive ‘tracers’, which are chemicals injected into the bloodstream. As the radioactive blood travels around the brain it emits positrons, invisible radioactive emissions, which PET (positron emission tomography) scanners outside the head can detect. In the last 15 years techniques have also been developed to measure the amount of oxygen regions of brain cells are using as they function (using functional MRI scanners) and for the first time scientists can actually see the brain at work.

It sounds complicated but for those people who’s brains need attention, and for all of us who may need such instruments in the future, it is fortunate and reassuring to live in a time of such human ingenuity and scientific discovery.