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‘Keep active’ to stay sharp in later life

Published on 01 April 2017 11:01 PM

Age UK has worked with experts to reveal what might help people to protect their thinking skills as they get older.

  • Staying Sharp is Age UK's new online hub on brain ageing, which has been developed in collaboration with the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) at the University of Edinburgh
  • Approximately three quarters of the changes in our thinking skills across our lives are down to lifestyle and environmental factors
  • Many of these factors may be things we can control or change
  • These factors include taking up a new language, maintaining regular physical exercise and stopping smoking.

Why our thinking skills change as we age

Thinking skills, for example memory and speed of processing information, change across our lives.

While many people believe that these changes are down to our genes, in fact it is lifestyle and environmental factors - many of which we have control over - that might play the biggest role.

What is Staying Sharp?

As a result, Age UK wants to raise awareness about the changes people can make to aspects of our lives that research is suggesting has the potential to protect our brain health and ‘stay sharp' as we age.

Staying Sharp is Age UK's new online hub which brings together the latest research and advice from world-leading experts in this field. This includes findings from the Disconnected Mind project, a world leading research project funded by Age UK at the University of Edinburgh.

Visit the Staying Sharp hub

"For many older people, losing their mental sharpness is one of their biggest fears," says Age UK's Chief Scientist Professor James Goodwin, "which is why it's important that people are aware of the lifestyle factors that can influence this process and that they have the power to change."

The benefits of exercising

Featured in the hub are the latest reports from the Global Council on Brain Health, which link physical activity and brain health. According to their report, people who are active and do deliberate exercise show beneficial changes in their brain structure and function.

This means staying physically active throughout the day and setting time aside every week for 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise.

Advice from the experts

Based on the latest evidence that has been provided by the experts, Age UK suggest the following top tips to help people stay sharp in later life.

1. Keep active: Get moving throughout the day and do physical exercises and activities that you enjoy - or try new ones. An active lifestyle and regular exercise are linked to healthier brains and sharper thinking skills in later life.

2. Don't smoke: If you smoke, it's best to stop. Smoking is linked with having a thinner cortex, the brain's outer layer that is crucial for thinking skills. When you stop smoking, some reversal of this damage may be possible.

3. Have regular check-ups:  If you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes make sure to see your doctor regularly. These conditions are associated with a higher risk of decline in thinking skills, particularly from middle-age.

4. Eat a healthy diet: Eat a diet high in fruit, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, beans and cereals: moderate in fish, dairy products and wine; and limited in red meat and poultry. This Mediterranean-style diet has been linked to better brain health. 

5. Maintain a healthy weight: Being overweight may be a risk factor for accelerated decline in thinking skills. A healthy weight is better for physical health too.

6. Look after your sleep: Aim for an average of 7-8 hours' sleep a day as this amount is related to better brain and physical health in older age. Try to get most of it at night, with only short daytime naps.

7. Take up a new activity: Take up activities or hobbies you haven't done before. New activities might help improve thinking skills in later life as they challenge us in new ways. If you do activities in a group, the increased social interaction may play a role too.

8. Learn another language: Learn and practise a language new to you. Learning and using more than one language is linked with better thinking skills in later life. And it's never too late to start - if anything, the benefits of speaking multiple languages might increase with age.

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Last updated: Dec 05 2018

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