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What is successful, healthy ageing?

Professor Ian Robertson and Professor Rose Anne Kenny discuss "What is Healthy, Successful Ageing?"
Hello. We’re going to start this week with a conversation between myself and a colleague– a dear colleague– at Trinity College, Professor Ian Robertson, who is a Senior Neuropsychologist in Trinity. And we thought we would actually scope out what our views are about healthy ageing. Ian I know that part of your passion about healthy ageing is very much embedded in the seven secrets of what’s good for the brain. Do you want to tell us a little bit about those? Yeah, the seven secrets, Rose Anne. Well, first of all, there’s physical exercise that you know all about. There’s diet. What’s good for the heart is good for the brain. There’s mental activity– keeping our brain active.
Actually, the brain is a bit like a muscle– use it or lose it. And then new learning– learning new things– a new language, a new musical instrument. Just learning new things. Learning actually generates new brain cells. And so it helps keeps the brain young. You want to try and keep some control over stress. Now we can’t– we’ll never get rid of stress completely. But if you can learn some yoga or meditation or relaxation method, this keeps stress under control. Social engagement. Social engagement. Having a network of contacts, of friends, of community engagement. That is one of the best drugs to protect the brain. Finally, thinking young. Don’t think yourself old.
Some people think themselves old, and you can see it in their posture, and you can see in their mental attitude. They expect negative things about ageing. And research and your own longitudinal study in ageing has shown that people with negative expectations of ageing, over a two-year period, will start walking slower, and their cognitive functions will decline. And that’s pretty remarkable, actually, because we know that the speed you walk at actually is a pretty good predictor for brain health but also for subsequent falls and instability, et cetera, which are something that really can trigger a physical decline in health, as well, as we get older. So how you perceive your ageing matters. And that’s a great thing, isn’t it?
Isn’t that amazing– that just because you– where do you learn this from? Your parents? You learn to expect that ageing is associated with bad events. So people start giving up social activities. I mean, your research has shown that, as well. They start to disengage. Once you start doing that, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. What about society’s perceptions of ageing? How does that influence our perceptions of how we age? You know, I think the problem is, most of what governs our behaviour is unconscious, isn’t it? Yes. And we absorb other people’s perceptions of us, without even realising we are. And then that contributes to these implicit, unconscious beliefs of ourselves that actually result in us withdrawing.
And so our brains don’t get the same stimulation. We don’t get the same pleasure out of things, because we withdraw from activity, so we don’t achieve goals so much. We don’t get rewards. And that starves our brain of essential chemicals– hormones like dopamine. I was struck very recently by something someone said to me about how, once he had retired, he felt he became invisible. That he didn’t have a role or– yeah, a role in society any longer. And that people perceived him as such– as not having a function or a role. So control and autonomy and having a purpose are important, aren’t they? Yeah. You go to a party, and, 10 to one, someone will say, what do you do?
Absolutely. “I’m retired.” What does that convey? And no one should retire. It’s a bad, bad word. It’s a bad word. By all means, give up a job you don’t like. But there’s jobs for all of us. It could be in your local community group, in a voluntary organisation, or contributing something. It could be your family. But you must never feel retired, because it really– the evidence is, in France self-employed people who have very good, state-run pension systems– those that choose to take retirement at age 60, compared to those that choose to take it at 65, the ones who take it at 60 have a higher rate of Alzheimer’s disease, in France.
So it’s really– by all means, stop doing something you don’t like, but start doing things you do like. Well, that’s the thing. New learning, as you said, is important. And variation in stimulation, so that your day isn’t the same humdrum day. You’ve shown, from some of your work with noradrenaline and that, that variation’s important. Do you want to speak a little bit about that? Variety– the spice. Yeah. Yeah, spice. So, novelty– new things are among the most brain-enriching– new experiences are among the most brain-enriching things. You know how, if you go on holiday to a new place you’ve never been before, the first couple of days seem to last forever.
And that’s because your whole brain’s switched on by new smells, new sights, new sounds. And time slows down, because of that. And the trouble with growing older– if we’re not careful, fewer and fewer things seem novel. So our brain is starved of that stimulation. And that causes another hormone, called “noradrenaline,” which actually is a wonder drug, as far as the brain is concerned. It reduces the toxicity, stops some of the plaques that many of us have in our brains associated with Alzheimer’s. It stops them killing off brain cells, or reduces their chances of that, and also helps the brain grow new connections. So what’s novelty’s big sister? Curiosity. And curious people live longer than incurious people.
And so culture curiosity– go to new places. And that doesn’t mean– and do new things. And that can be within a very small radius of your house. You don’t have to be travelling to the ends of earth to do that. But you can marry all of those things. So social engagement, which we know is good. Exercise, which we know is good. And curiosity, novelty. You know, as a group, in groups, you can start to vary your lifestyle so that you encompass all of these things that we know are really important for healthy, successful ageing. And that’s what we’re going to be addressing now, in this week’s discussions, with respect to healthy ageing. Thank you very much, Ian.
Thank you, Rose Anne. Thanks.

As we investigate successful ageing, Professor of Psychology Ian Robertson and Professor of Medical Gerontology Rose Anne Kenny discuss healthy ageing and Professor Robertson offers his “Seven Secrets of Mental Sharpness”.

  • Think about the seven secrets above. Which of these are already a regular part of your life?
  • Are any of the secrets missing from your life at present?

Ian Robertson is Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin.

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