How to Challenge your Ageing Mind… And Why You Should

With an average age expectancy in the UK of 80.9, it’s clear that people are living much longer nowadays than they did previously. This has all sorts of implications for the NHS, social care and economic planning.

It also has huge implications from an emotional health point of view. If we can expect to live much longer, then we want to be able to enjoy that extra time – keeping active in both mind and body.

There are challenges of being an older person and these include illness, financial worries, bereavement and loneliness and also a decline in mental capacity. Forgetfulness, for example, is something which affects lots of older adults. Sometimes this can be a cause for concern or point to the onset of more serious conditions such as dementia. Often, however, it is simply the brain slowing down and taking longer to process information. Sometimes, old people simply need more time to think things through and we should be aware of this and not try to rush them or expect them to be working at the same speed as someone much younger.

In fact, the brain is capable of producing new cells at any age but lifestyle, habits and daily activities have a huge impact. Basically, you use it or lose it! Scientists have discovered, for example, that challenging your brain with new tasks and activities helps to actually build new brain cells and strengthens connections between them. Higher levels of mental activity throughout your life and into older age are consistently associated with better brain function and less cognitive decline.

So what are the specific ways that you can enhance your cognitive skills and keep your brain working?

  • Keep learning. Whether you like dance classes, learning new languages or playing an instrument, keep at it, as learning new skills keeps your brain active and on its toes.

  • Join a club which provides a variety of interests and different stimulation. Groups such as the University of the Third Age (The U3A) are very popular as they bring older people together to develop interests and continue their learning in a social and friendly environment. There are over 1,000 of these groups in the UK and most offer a wide variety of activity groups, regular talks on different topics and opportunities for social interaction.

  • Write down the things that you need to remember or even repeat them out loud. This reinforces connections or memories. Repetition is also a good learning tool for people of all ages.

  • Challenge yourself with puzzles or crosswords and give yourself time to think things through – don’t necessarily give up immediately because the answer doesn’t appear instantly. Processing takes more time when you’re older so acknowledge that and give yourself that bit extra.

  • Use your senses to enhance your participation and learning. The more you use different senses, the more of your brain will be involved in retaining the memory. Studies have shown for example, that adults were more able to recall images if those images were presented with a smell.

  • Be as physically active as you are able to. Exercise classes, walking and dancing, for example, all keep you healthy in body and mind.

  • Seek out social stimulation, meeting up with others, having conversations help to keep the mind active.

  • Reading is a good activity for older people as it sparks imagination and stimulates the brain to create internal pictures to match the words written on paper. It’s relaxing, something that you can do at any time and is one of the most effective ways to exercise your brain.

  • Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, be positive and try not to feel diminished by age. There are advantages and disadvantages of being in every age group – try to focus on the positives and manage the limitations. Forget the ‘shoulds’ – you makes the rules, no one else.