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Keeping fit and healthy in retirement

Published: 24 January 2016

Until recently retirement was viewed as a time to switch off, mentally. Not today, though – ever more retirees are determined to make the most of their opportunities to enjoy their independence for as long as possible

For many, who work hard to stay mentally and physically healthy, retirement provides a new lease of life and a chance to challenge themselves in new ways. And going against perceived wisdom, recent studies inform us that mental deterioration is not an inevitable element of advancing years, so those who remain intellectually stimulated could stand a much better chance of warding off dementia conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

However, it is true that forgetfulness may increase as part of the ageing process, and that can impact concentration and attention span, as well as the ability to adapt to a new situation. And the significant changes that occur more frequently later in life – including finishing work for good, bereavement, going through a divorce, or even menopause – can put our minds under a lot of stress.

Keeping active may be one of the better ways to offset these as we age. Health promotion consultant Nick Cavill says: “Mental health is an extremely under-rated aspect of health in old age. “We tend to focus on obesity and on ‘typical’ ailments like arthritis and forget that many older people suffer from poor mental health, ranging from loneliness to depression.”

So even if you are planning on enjoying a future at a slower pace, why not reach for the Sudoku, or test yourself with a crossword? An agile mind can be nourished in three ways: mental stimulation; a healthy diet; and aerobic exercise. So what are the best ways to keep your brain in good shape during retirement?

Engage yourself

Establishing a daily routine where you can participate in a mental workout is key, suggests Mr Cavill. Retirement homes are responding to this demand by offering activities to help those aged 60 or above stay alert. Reading more, and possibly joining a book club, is a great way to keep the mind subtle, and other activities to consider include attempting crosswords, or newspaper puzzles.

Playing mind-stretching games such as cards, and computer games could also be hugely helpful. Taking up an entirely new interest, such as knitting, embroidery or even gardening, will further stimulate the brain. Joining a club, or choir, for instance, is a great way to meet people, and there is no doubt that social interaction aids memory and concentration.

Brain food

Your brain requires energy and nutrients, like everything else in the body, and having an idea which foods are particularly good for our grey matter is vital. So before you make a grab that extra biscuit consider that foods high in saturated fats, such as cakes, pastry or sausages, are likely to speed up mental decline.

A good, healthy and balanced diet – punctuated with plenty of fruit and vegetables – will benefit both your brain and nervous system. BBC Good Food highlights the brain-nourishing qualities of blueberries, blackberries, tomatoes, pumpkin seeds and oily fish.

Healthy body, healthy mind

Exercise is vital for mental agility. Being active makes for better circulation: it gets the heart pumping and increases blood flow, carrying more oxygen and nutrients to the brain. The UK’s chief medical officers prescribe at least half an hour a day for the over-sixties.

Exercise also helps with depression and anxiety, as well as other forms of emotional distress: “There does seem to be increasing recognition of the importance of mental health,” says Mr Cavill. “The UK’s chief medical officers said in their 2011 report that ‘there is an approximately 20 to 30 per cent lower risk for depression and dementia for adults participating in daily physical activity.’

“Programmes like Walking for Health – run by Ramblers and Macmillan Cancer Support – are increasingly focusing on this aspect of physical activity providing mental stimulus. Through group-led walks for older people they provide opportunities for healthy exercise, but also a way for people to socialise, get out of the house and meet other people,” he says. Read our article on ‘The Importance of Moving in Retirement‘ for more information.

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