Smart ageing: Step it out together to boost brain health

Margaret Jennings says most of us are aware of the benefits of a good diet as we age, but physical activity and social engagement are crucial for wellbeing too.

Smart ageing: Step it out together to boost brain health

The next time you bite into your favourite colourful fruit or vegetable you might want to thank it — because it’s helping your cells to eliminate toxins, which is a process that becomes more difficult for us to do, as we age.

That’s one of the reasons diet is so important for healthy ageing, says Rose Anne Kenny, the professor of medical gerontology, at Trinity College Dublin.

It’s only one of the simple things we can do to make sure we age well, says Kenny, the founding principal investigator of The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), who is passionate about us taking responsibility for growing older healthily.

“All of our cells produce energy, the by-products of the energy are toxins, and the cells are developed in such a way as to get rid of those toxins,” she explains. “There are all sorts of structures in our cells which swallow up those toxins, spew them into the blood system and then get rid of them through the kidney or the faeces — that’s what happens.”

But as we get older the ability to eliminate those toxins decreases and that’s what leads to cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and other conditions linked to ageing.

“So managing the cell wear-and-tear is really, really important and ensuring that the cell doesn’t get put under oxidative stress, as it’s creating energy and getting rid of toxins. The reasons dark fruit and vegetables are good is that they produce factors that increase the ability of the cells to get rid of the toxins.”

For those who don’t like fruit or veg there is good news also: “There were a number of studies published in The Lancet recently which show that three portions of vegetable, fruit and legume a day, makes a significant impact on cardiovascular disease or death,” says Kenny. “That’s as opposed to ‘oh you have to have 10-a-day to make a difference’; this is a global study, of more than 300,000 people.

“They also showed that carbohydrates and sugars are bad, but fats don’t have the same impact. So diet is really important.”

Apart from diet, we all know exercise is hugely important, but for the brain as well as the body, she points out. Participants in research who went through an exercise programme, showed an improvement in the volume in the memory area of the brain after a six-week programme; there’s actually a structural change in the brain.

“Not only that, we also know from recent Whitehall studies in Britain that the flexibility of arteries in the body improve after exercise. They followed people over the age of 60 over a number of years, who either didn’t do exercise at all, or decreased, or increased it,” she says. “Over a five-year-period if they increased their physical activities, the stiffness of the vessels — which contribute to cardiovascular diseases — decreased. These are very important findings, showing that exercise actually improves the structures of the body in addition to brain health and physical health.”

While our genes are only responsible for 25-30% of our ageing process, the rest is environmental factors and lifestyle, says the professor.

We may accept that smoking and drinking too much, affect our health at any age — but, loneliness can have an impact too.

Studies have shown that being lonely can influence how efficiently our cells work also. “Loneliness is really bad for physical health but can also lead to cognitive problems like concentration and memory issues and possibly even dementia,” says Kenny.

“There’s been an amazing study in the States from a group in Chicago, which followed people through life. They knew from post-mortems, when they looked at their brains, if they had had dementia pathology. However, the people who had the same amount of dementia pathology but had very good social interaction in life — no loneliness — didn’t display dementia during life.

“So it seems that social engagement was protective for the manifestation of dementia as we know it. That was one of the first studies to give us a clue that this was a really important factor. We know now from many studies, that social engagement does reduce inflammation and does reduce your likelihood of getting cognitive impairment and dementia, but also heart attacks and strokes.

“So if you find physical activity difficult for instance, then do it with people; do something in a group, because that way you’re getting your social engagement —your fun, but also getting exercise.”

Previous generations didn’t have choices, like we do, to influence their longevity. Up to the 1800s — for most of human history — only 3% of people, in any given population lived to over 65.

“Then an amazing thing began to happen and we were living longer by three months per year, or five hours a day and that increased life expectancy is continuous, so we need to start making provision,” says Kenny.

“We are already seeing a big growth in the proportion of people over 80 and even in the number of centenarians. So you try to age healthily or you’re dead, you’re not around.”

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