50+ health * Mental wellbeing

How to "stay sharp" in old age

Being physically and mentally active holds back mental decline in old age Being physically and mentally active holds back mental decline in old age

Four key factors important to maintaining good mental health in old age have been identifiedby scientists in new research.

Keeping physically and mentally active, not smoking and keeping in contact with people were found to be most important in avoiding mental decline.

Scientists from the University of California studied 2,500 people, aged 70-79 over an eight year period. All participants took part in tests designed to assess mental agility.

During this time, 53 per cent of volunteers showed an expected level of mental decline for their age, but 16 per cent experienced a major reduction in mental decline.

However, the remaining 30 per cent of participants stayed mentally sharp, and some even improved their performance on the mental tests over the years.

Lead scientist Dr. Alexandra Fiocco said:

"To this day, the majority of past research has focussed on factors that put people who maintain cognitive function that put people at greater risk to lose their cognitive skills over time, but much less is known about what factors help people maintain their skills."

Scientists then examined the lifestyles of people who remained mentally sharp in old age and compared them with those who had lost some of their mental ability through time. Those who avoided mental decline were found to have four key factors in common.

People who exercised moderately to vigorously at least once a week were 30 per cent more likely to stay sharp than those who didn't, according to the research.

Education was an important factor, as those who had a good education were almost three times more likely to avoid mental decline compared to those with less education.

And non-smokers were almost twice as likely to stay mentally fit compared with those who smoked.

Being socially active also counted. People who kept in touch with others either through work, volunteering or living with someone were 24 per cent more likely to stave off mental decline later on in life.

Dr. Fiocco commented:

"Some of these factors such as exercise and smoking are behaviours that people can change. Discovering factors associated with cognitive maintenance may be very useful in prevention strategies that guard against or slow the onset of dementia. These results will also help us understand the mechanisms that are involved in healthy ageing."

This article was published on Tue 9 June 2009

Image © Monkey Business - Fotolia.com

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