Volunteering helps age-proof your brain

Posted by Olderiswiser Editorial

Dr Lynda Shaw explains how an active life can maintain brain health and help stave off Alzheimer's and dementia

Volunteering helps ageingIn support of World Alzheimer’s Month (September) and the International Council on Active Aging’s ‘Active Aging Week’ (22nd to 28th September), cognitive neuroscientist and age specialist Dr Lynda Shaw is calling for the retired to volunteer more to tackle loneliness and isolation, and to age more successfully.

Alzheimer’s Disease affects almost half a million people in the UK, and World Alzheimer’s Day on 21st September 2013 aims to unite opinion leaders, people with dementia, their carers and family, medical professionals, researchers and the media to raise awareness of this serious health issue. Dr Lynda Shaw is backing the awareness drive, and is advocating for better preventative measures to ward off the increase in dementia including volunteering.

Dr Shaw says: “With over a third of the UK population now aged over 50, prevention of Alzheimer’s is more important than ever. Getting into the habit of doing mind exercises, eating a balanced diet, hydration, regular exercise and maintaining healthy blood pressure are a great place to start.  There are also less obvious preventative actions we can take including volunteering, which both enables older people to become more active in their community, fighting potential loneliness and boredom as well as keeping our brains active. 

“Loneliness is a major risk factor for physical and mental well-being, exacerbating heart disease, diabetes, dementia and more.  Even neural activity in the brain can be negatively affected by isolation.  For instance, when we are socially isolated, research has shown that there is less activity in the temporalparietal junction, which is involved in understanding social situations.   This means that the less we mix with others, the harder it becomes, but by getting out there and joining in we can improve activations in the brain.

“Once we are well passed our retirement age, involvement in regular activities with others can start to dwindle.  Volunteering can be both rewarding and fun. When we laugh we put all of our problems in perspective offering a little respite, and we think more clearly. Our levels of dopamine and serotonin naturally increase while volunteering, and cortisol is suppressed, meaning we feel happy and energised. Getting involved in community activities such as volunteering is also an excellent way to meet new people.  Thinking outside yourself and more about others also helps to keep you healthy.”

However knowing the early warning signs of dementia is vital, because early intervention means better access to information, advice and the support that you may need to help you to continue leading an active and fulfilling life.  Dr Shaw advises if you are worried about your memory to go to a memory clinic as soon as possible for a specialist assessment.

Early warning signs of dementia include:

  • Struggling to remember recent events
  • Forgetting the names of friends and everyday objects more than normal forgetting
  • Being unable to recall things you have heard, seen or read
  • Finding it hard to follow conversations or programmes on television
  • Repeating yourself or losing the thread of what you are saying
  • Having problems thinking and reasoning
  • Feeling confused
  • Feeling anxious, angry or depressed about your memory

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