As we age, our brains do too. But Associate Professor Muireann Irish from the Brain and Mind Centre and School of Psychology assures us there are things we can do to mitigate against cognitive decline and dementia - and it’s not just doing a few sudoku’s every day.
Staying mentally sharp into older age requires us to really challenge our brains with stimulating activity.
“We need to stay curious, seek out things that are mentally taxing and engage in social activities,” said Associate Professor Irish. “Some activities that can help include taking a new photography class, learning a new language or volunteering in a social capacity.”
Sleep is also crucial for brain health urges Associate Professor Irish.
“Our brains actually repair during sleep. During our waking hours, levels of amyloid rise in the brain, however, during sleep the brain seems to self-clean causing these levels to diminish,” she explained. “While we sleep, the experiences we’ve had are also consolidated and become long-term memories.”
Landmark research at the University of Sydney by Dr Samantha Solon-Biet from the Charles Perkins Centre suggests there could be a cost to staying lean your whole life and that a diet low in protein and high in healthy carbohydrates may be best for healthy ageing.
“How we age is highly influenced by diet, and it’s not just the number of calories that we eat but the types of food that we get them from,” said Dr Solon-Biet.
While long term high protein intake promotes lean mass and can help with weight loss, it has been found to turn on pro-growth and pro-ageing pathways that lead to accelerated ageing.
“A lot of popular diets promote high protein, but we have found that a diet low in protein and high in carbohydrates turns on systems that promote longevity,” explained Dr Solon-Biet.
Don’t take this as an excuse to gorge on cakes and processed foods though, the carbohydrates in this diet should come from healthy sources such as vegetables, fruit and wholegrains to reap these benefits.
“Would you rather stay healthier and live longer or be leaner but live a shorter life? Because we know that nutrition can help achieve each of these, but not all on the same diet.”
It’s not news that exercise is good for our health, so why is only half of the Australian population sufficiently active?
Associate Professor Anne Tiedemann from the Institute for Musculoskeletal Health says while there is an abundance of evidence linking physical activity to better health and ageing, there has been a lack of progression to implement this activity into the population more widely.
Beyond tackling obesity, being physically active reduces your risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers and it improves your mental health as well.
“It also focuses on strength building, which is key in keeping you independent and out of care for longer into older age,” said Associate Professor Tiedemann. “We need to start looking at movement as an opportunity, not as an inconvenience.”
So, how much exercise should you be doing? Adults aged under 65 should aim to do 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity each week, including strength training twice a week.
“The recommendations for older people are similar, but improving balance is crucial because we know that it is important for preventing falls which is a huge issue in older age,” explained Associate Professor Tiedemann.
Ageing in place and out of aged care facilities is the preference for the majority of people aged over 65. Associate Professor Kurt Iveson from the School of Geosciences says that our environments and cities are shaping our ability to do this.
“One of the political challenges we face is that inclusive, age-friendly environments are unevenly distributed across a city like Sydney,” said Associate Professor Iveson.
“As an example, accessible public transport is crucial for people to be able to age well in place.”
A staggering 42 percent of Sydney metro and intercity train stations do not have lifts or access to platforms that doesn’t involve stairs. Accessible train stations don’t just benefit people who are over 65, they benefit the whole community.
“We’ve heard that one of the things we can do to age well is to stay physically active, but we might also want to stay politically active and push for collective action that will change our urban environments to make them more inclusive,” he said.
“Building alliances with others in the community and identifying win-win situations is another thing we can add to the list of how to age well and in place.”
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