Healthy Minds

Summer 2005 CSANews Issue 55  |  Posted date : May 20, 2007.Back to list

Much emphasis is placed on physical well-being and disease prevention, with less attention being paid to the measures which lead to preserving mental acuity and promoting healthy minds as we age. Recent studies are proving that there is much we can do ourselves to promote good mental health and reduce the risk of memory loss and dementia.

The lifestyle of senior Canadians is rapidly changing. The magical retirement age of 65 is becoming a thing of the past, with governments and corporations now paying more attention to ability than age. Nevertheless, in many cases, individuals are financially secure at younger ages and many choose to leave the work force even in their 50s. The days are gone for most, when retirement meant more time in the rocking chair and withdrawal from most social interaction. There is now abundant evidence that keeping mentally active is just as important as keeping as physically fit as possible. Just as physical activity helps to preserve your health and independence and reduce the risk of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and osteoporosis, keeping mentally "fit" promotes an improved quality of life, more enjoyment of your senior years, less stress and psychosomatic symptoms and may reduce the risk for certain dementias.

In addition to the aging process itself causing decline in our cognitive ability, disease and disuse are other factors that are important. Of the diseases, by far the most common and the most dreaded is Alzheimer's disease. But even with this condition, there is research suggesting that healthy diets and mental lifestyle may delay its onset or ameliorate the symptoms. The therapeutic and lifestyle activities associated with reducing the risk of hypertension, cerebral arteriosclerosis, diabetes and hypercholesterolemia are important in preserving mental acuity.

The "disuse" factor is the one receiving the most recent attention. According to a report out of Southern Illinois University school of medicine, department of psychiatry, "practice tends to mitigate the effects of aging by not allowing disuse to occur." In other words, by keeping your mind active as you did pre-retirement, you will be helping to offset this third factor.

Maintaining your "cognitive well-being" may be accomplished by keeping your mind active and challenged through a variety of activities. With many of these, there is not only enjoyment but also the important ingredient of making and keeping social contacts. Recent research in Australia suggests that having a strong network of friends helps people to live longer. "Older people with better social networks with friends were less likely to die over a 10-year follow-up period than older people with poorer friends' networks," claimed Lynne C. Giles of Flinders University in Adelaide. Many other studies have shown that elderly persons who are connected with lots of people tend to live longer. This is good news for most "snowbirds," who are usually able to participate in more social interaction in the winter months in warmer climates.

So what are some of the activities we should consider in achieving optimal mental "fitness"? One of the easiest is reading. Keep your daily newspaper coming to the door, even while away for the winter. Books and magazines can keep you informed, as well as challenge your intellect and memory. Consider joining or forming a local book club. Writing, especially during your weeks away from family during the winter months, is helpful for your memory and grammar skills. Keep a calendar of your family's birthdays and events; buy cards ahead of time with stamped envelopes and be diligent in remembering these important gestures.

And now many of us have mastered the computer, which allows even more effective communication with friends and family. Internet chat rooms and surfing the Web allows for especially good cognitive fitness. Any subject can be researched over the Internet. Basic training to educate yourself in becoming computer literate is now readily available from organized classes, as well as through individual instruction. If you're already competent, why not teach others to use this wonderful source for learning and communication? Keeping in touch with family while away, and even seeing them with the inexpensive computer cameras, is a great advantage for snowbirds.

There is now abundant evidence that keeping mentally active is just as important as keeping as physically fit as possible.

Crossword puzzles and board games such as chess, checkers and Scrabble provide for active mental stimulation and card games such as bridge allow for the social network that is so important. Many seniors also access such interaction through volunteer activity. Whether it be a hospital auxiliary, a seniors club, a charitable organization or a church group, remember that your participation will not only reward others, it will also reward you. For many snowbirds, their participation in such voluntary organizations is not limited to their Canadian homes. Many participate in such important activities in their winter residence and their assistance is warmly appreciated.

Church groups and seniors clubs are especially focused on events to accomplish these goals. If not already a part of one, find out how you can contribute and join in the social activities available.

If you've always enjoyed a hobby, maintain your skills and keep active with it. Whether it's woodworking, sewing or gardening, take the time to continue and consider classes which will expand your skills. Classes should also be considered in areas of new endeavours. Most community colleges welcome seniors into their adult courses, and similar classes can be found in your winter locale.

Such social interaction can be especially helpful in preserving mental health at times of critical transitions. These could include complications of a disease, development of a new disease, a major accident such as a broken hip or the loss of a spouse. Coping with such major events is easier when one has a healthy mental attitude, and a caring and attendant network of friends. In later years, when the critical transition may be leaving your own home to reside in a retirement home or nursing home, stable mental health and friends will be even more important.

Many researchers conclude that diet is important in maintaining good mental health, as well as good physical health. While there is some evidence that certain diets may ward off the onset of dementia in those at highest risk, until more specific research data is available, diets recommended for healthy living should be followed. In general, eating a diet rich in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals (tomatoes, greens, grains, garlic, onions, cabbage) and fibre, together with staying active and using your brain in challenging ways, appears to be a key part of staying healthy while aging.

While golf must surely be the most popular sport among snowbirds, there are increasing opportunities to access many other sporting activities from horseshoes to tennis, swimming to cycling and hiking to curling. The social interaction resulting from these sports is as valuable as the physical benefits.

One of the organizations which has arisen from this new wave of physical and mental well-being for seniors is the Canadian Senior Games Association. Initiated in 1996, the organization now boasts representation of more than 100,000 senior Canadians who participate in local events leading up to the annual national games. This year, Edmonton is the site for the 700 finalists meeting to compete. Their mission statement: "Through both active and passive games, our mission is to influence personal behaviour and social supports that encourage healthy active living for older adults in Canada." Their activities span a wide range of physical and mental challenges, from slow-pitch softball to contract bridge, from darts to lawn bowling, and from snooker to track and field. In addition to the physical and sporting attributes, the camaraderie and social interaction are an integral and essential part of the games.

As the population of senior Canadians continues to dramatically rise, there are many more opportunities for us to improve our physical and mental well-being.

The sedentary lifestyle of previous generations encouraged mental, physical and social deterioration. Your participation in challenging mental activities will enhance your confidence, independence and enjoyment of your senior years.