How to age well: the link between brain and body health
Staying active By exploiting the link between exercise and brain health, it's entirely possible to reach 100 in good mental and physical shape, says Professor James Goodwin, Chief Scientist at Age UK.
There's a fascinating connection between our physical and mental health says Professor James Goodwin, Chief Scientist at Age UK, the charity working with older people. “They have a reciprocal relationship,” he says. “Scientists have known for many years that there is a link between brain and body. So, for example, people who experience trauma, war or extreme events can see their health decline very quickly. That's because the brain is transmitting perceived stress to the rest of the body. And, equally, what is going on in the body is communicated to the brain.”
For many older people, losing their mental sharpness is one of their biggest fears — yet there remains much confusion around brain ageing and dementia. “We experience cognitive decline with age which varies hugely from one individual to another,” says Goodwin. “The skills we have learned over many years actually improve as we get older; but reaction time, speed of processing, and reasoning declines. This is a normal part of ageing, but it need not be debilitating. It only becomes debilitating when it becomes Mild Cognitive Impairment, the symptoms of which include constant difficulty in remembering numbers, names and/or faces”. Only one in six people who are identified with Mild Cognitive Impairment go on to develop dementia.
Ultimately, anything that can be done to slow down the rate of ageing will improve our physical and mental health; and, as a 2016 report by the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) notes, exercise plays a big part in that. For example, it highlights that people who participate in “purposeful exercise” show beneficial changes in brain structure and function. “People go to the doctor and want a pill for everything,” says Goodwin. “What I would prescribe instead is physical activity. From a biological point of view, the human body was meant to be stressed physically. It was not meant to sit down all day.” Whatever exercise you take, you can expect to feel more mentally positive afterwards.
Across our lifespan, says Goodwin, we are susceptible to various 'modifiable risk factors'. Some are obvious and include smoking, drinking, being overweight, eating the wrong things and not exercising. “But sleep is one that no one talks about,” says Goodwin. “Lack of sleep can have devastating effects on the rate of ageing.”
Then there's social engagement. A relatively new science called social epidemiology looks at the effects of an individual's social environment — friends, family, neighbourhood, community, social support and loneliness — on their health and wellbeing. “We know that social isolation is exceptionally bad for you — as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” says Goodwin. “So if you get your social environment right, you can make a big impact on your mental and physical health.”
This is why Goodwin is a great believer in ageing well. “I'm an optimist,” he says. “In this day and age, it's entirely possible to reach 100 in good mental and physical shape. If you exercise, sleep well, have a good social life and avoid chronic long-term illness — such as diabetes and hypertension — you'll go a long way towards living well, both mentally and physically.”