Numerous studies have found that the frontal lobes of the brain show the greatest losses with ageing. Consistent with this finding it has also been shown that tasks that draw on cognitive processes performed by the frontal lobes are especially affected by ageing. These cognitive processes include working memory and executive control. Working memory is the means by which we recall information despite distractions. Our executive control processes are involved when we select which tasks we need to focus our attention on in order to carry them out satisfactorily. Taken together frontal lobe functioning is essential when performing a number of everyday tasks. These include -
- Being able to hold a meaningful conversation. To do this you must be able to keep your own ideas in mind while paying attention to what the other person is saying.
- Performing mental arithmetic.
- Reading a book, because you must be able to relate the sentence you are reading to those that have gone before.
- Cooking a meal involves planning and coordinating a number of tasks in the correct order.
- Listening to a talk were you must ignore distractions and concentrate on what the speaker is saying.
The human brain requires a constant supply of blood. If this supply is interrupted even for a few minutes, brain cells begin to die. Approximately 25% of the blood pumped out by the heart goes directly to our brain to supply this need. Obviously when we are more active and our heart is pumping more vigourously than usual, the supply of oxygenated blood to our brain is increased. Numerous studies have shown that exercise has a short term effect on mental performance.
Professors Art Kramer and Ed McAuley, from the University of Illinois, studied the effect of long-term engagement in exercise on the brain. Sedentary volunteers 60 through 79 years old were asked to participate in a six-month exercise program in which half of the volunteers did aerobic exercises such as walking. The other half did non-aerobic stretching and toning exercises.
The participants in the aerobic exercise group showed increases in brain volume compared with the other participants. The prefrontal and temporal cortices - the areas that show considerable age-related deterioration - incurred the greatest gains from aerobic exercise.
More recently researchers at Vancouver General Hospital and the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of British Columbia decided to examine the effects of resistance training on cognitive performance. They assigned a large group of women aged 66 to 75 to either resistance training classes or balance and toning classes over a period of twelve months. The results showed a clear improvement in executive function and task performance in the resistance training group, compared with a slight reduction in performance with the balance and toning group.
What are we to conclude from these studies? The evidence would seem to point to engagement in vigourous activity as beneficial for cognitive functioning. Just find an activity you like and stick with it!
Retirement is good for you!
I am grateful to one of our readers who drew my attention to a recent study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, which followed the lifestyle behaviours of 25,000 retired Australians. The study included measures of physical activity, diet, sedentary behaviour, alcohol use and sleep patterns.
The research found that retirement was associated with positive lifestyle changes, Compared with people who were still working, retirees had increased physical activity levels, reduced sitting time, were less likely to smoke, and had healthier sleep patterns. This is in contrast to an earlier, smaller study in Scotland, that found retirees were less active than they had been while working. Perhaps the message is beginning to get through that retirement can create a great window of opportunity to make positive lifestyle changes - to get rid of bad routines and engineer new, healthier behaviours..
Throughout early 2012 Copenhagen businessman Ole Kassow often passed 97-year-old Thorkild Thimas sitting outside his care home. One day he stopped to talk with the older man. During their brief chat he discovered that Thorkild used to cycle, but that he was no longer able to. The following week Ole borrowed a cycle rickshaw from a friend and went to the care home to ask if he fancied going for a ride. It turned out to be a life-changing encounter for both men. Kassow now spearheads a scheme that has captured the imagination of thousands of Danes, young and old; a scheme that is changing the way they think about old age. It's called Cycling Without Age.
In the months that followed Kassow asked a handful of friends to take residents of other care homes out on the roads. Three years later a fleet of adapted Christiania cargo bikes, with two passenger seats up-front and even specially designed blankets, have been dispensed to more than 150 care homes across 40 Danish municipalities. More than 600 Danish volunteers, or "pilots," have signed up to take elderly people out for rides. They enter their details on a simple booking system and they can volunteer as often as they like. "We've got plumbers, architects, students, lawyers, retired professionals - people from all walks of life," Kassow explained. "The oldest is 86 and the youngest is 16."
Kassow is adamant that although bicycles are central to the activity, cycling is not. "It's about relationships; about reconnecting elderly people with their environment. Just because you move into a nursing home, does that mean you have to live in the past? I think you should be able to look forward to things for years to come."
There are plenty of people who agree with Kassow. The scheme has already been rolled out across Norway, Switzerland is well on the way and he's talking to people in 51 cities in 18 countries around the world, all of whom are keen to import the concept.
To see Ole deliver a TED talk on how he came to create Cycling Without Age, watch this short video. Inspirational!
This month, and prompted by the proximity of the prospect of warm sunshine abroad, Michael returns to the topic of travel. He examines two options in Italy, one in the north and the other in the south of the country. This tale has an innovative twist. Click here.
Jeanette is "down sizing" and has now succeeded in selling her old home and is looking forward to moving to her new one and being closer to her three year old grand daughter. This month her article is based on a new book which features the collective wisdom of more than a thousand people over 65. Click here to read Jeanette's thoughts on life and love.
Reflections is intended to showcase short pieces of poetry or prose that reflect on our life experience. This month features another poem by my late friend and colleague, Philip Clarke.
To read "A Summer Smile", by Philip Clarke, click here.