Adult Education's vital role
Tuesday 2nd May 2017
We are all living much, much longer and this raises a vital role for Adult Education to help maintain our physical and cognitive health into old age and help combat the onset of dementia.
As our bodies age and we slow down and become physically weaker so do our brains. Neurons that die are not replaced and gradually our brains begin to shrink and our ability to process information diminishes. We lose about 1% of our adult brain capacity per year. This is normal and it will result in slower responses to questions and some memory loss. It is important to distinguish between this normal cognitive slowdown and cognitive impairment i.e. dementia resulting from damage to the brain via a disease like Alzheimer's disease or a stroke.
In 1901 Dr Alois Alzheimer noticed the rapid memory loss and deterioration in one of his patients, Auguste Deter. The autopsy revealed that whole sections of her brain had simply withered away and died. Dr Alzheimer was the first to identify and examine what we now know as Alzheimer's disease. Auguste was first diagnosed patient and today there are 47 million cases worldwide with 520,000 in the UK. Alzheimer's is the most extreme form of dementia.
Education cannot cure Alzheimer's disease but it can have a marked impact on slowing down cognitive ageing. Research by Lynn Hasher, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Toronto has highlighted that the age group fifty plus can outperform younger people in problem solving, reasoning and creativity by drawing upon a much wider life experience and knowledge, "neuroscience has shown that learning is a lifelong activity and that the more that it continues the more effective it is."
Our adult education services need to be proactive in highlighting the cognitive and health benefits of participation in learning and leisure activities. We are facing a crisis of care with too many older members of our society becoming infirm, suffering memory loss, loneliness and boredom. This isolation and lack of mental stimulation hastens cognitive ageing but we can take steps to help people to enjoy an active old age. Adult education can make difference in three particular aspects learning, exercise and diet.
Learning something new
Stan Holley was named as the oldest student in England. He enrolled in Stourbridge College in the Midlands at the age of eighty-seven in 2016 and successfully passed examinations in Functional Skills English and Maths. You are never too old to learn!
Dr Lara Boyd, the Director of the Brain Behaviour lab at the University of British Columbia gave a TED Talk on neuroscience entitled, "After watching this your brain will not be the same." The choice of title reflected the fact that any new learning or experience produces physical changes within grey matter in the form of new synaptic links.
The evidence of physical changes in the brain in response to new learning was first demonstrated by Dr Erich Kandel in research which earned him the Nobel Prize for Physiology in 2000. Kandel's research confirmed what had long been suspected that our brains are not static but reflect neuroplasticity i.e. they continue to grow and develop deep into adulthood in response to everyday environmental and learning experiences.
Consequently attending Adult Education classes and learning something new will have a highly beneficial impact on the brain. Learning a language or a musical instrument have been shown to really light-up the brain in terms of the formation of new neural links. However, any new learning is beneficial whatever the skill or knowledge and we need to drive participation and remaining cognitively active into old age. Reading is one of the best habits to maintain but beware of investing in the rash of 'brain training' products entering the marketplace. Many make significant claims for improving cognitive function but there is little, if any, scientific evidence to underpin such claims. In 2014 the Stanford University Centre for Longevity released a statement signed by 75 leading neurologists warning against brain training videos and online 'smart' games. They may improve your ability to complete the task or game but they do not improve long-term cognitive abilities. You are just as well off reading, completing crosswords, Sudoko etc.
A further significant benefit of enrolling in classes is simply social engagement. Interacting with other people is a significant factor in maintaining mental alertness. Adult Education services should consider linking with the new Popup College which is expanding nationwide (www.popupcollege.co.uk). It may attract more people into participation as they hold classes in branches of Costa Coffee after normal closing hours. Beyond this Adult Education needs to rapidly expand online classes. Although attending classes is preferable for the social engagement many older people find it difficult to attend a centre but they may engage online.
Aerobic exercise relates to physical effort that makes your heart beat faster, breathe faster and makes your sweat. Aerobic exercise, ideally performed for thirty minutes per day, improves oxygen and glucose circulation to the brain and has been shown to promote the growth of new neurons and faster processing speeds. Harvard Medical school reports, "the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) have greater volume in people who exercise versus people who don't."
The most effective form of aerobic exercise is jogging but it may be as simple as doing step-ups in your own home, cleaning your kitchen floor, gardening etc. If you are not a jogger then brisk walking and standing rather than sitting for long periods is highly beneficial. 10,000 steps per day is highly recommended by the NHS as correlating with better health. This equates to about five miles. In general walk rather than taking the bus or get off a stop earlier or park further away. Always take the stairs and not the lift and opt for a longer walking route to your destination. You can introduce an aerobic benefit to walking by walking briskly for one or two minutes to increase your heart rate and especially on any uphill sections. Hippocrates (460-370 BC) also recognised the benefits of a good walk and gave advice that might be beneficial for all of us, "If you are in a bad mood go for a walk. If you are still in a bad mood go for another walk."
Too many of our senior citizens are infirm because exercise has been neglected in their middle years. Adult Education and our Sports and Leisure centres need to actively target exercise for a healthy old age. Dr Laura Baker, Professor of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine stated in 2015, "aerobic exercise significantly increased blood flow in the memory and processing centers of participant's brains, with a corresponding improvement in attention, planning, and organizing abilities referred to as "executive function."
The association between a Mediterranean diet with maintaining good health has been well established over the last twenty years but within recent years neuroscience has revealed links to higher cognitive functioning and even protection against the onset of dementia. A Mediterranean diet is primarily based around the consumption of fish, nuts, fruit, vegetables and olive oil with minimal consumption of meat, dairy products, sugar and saturated fats.
In 2017 research published in the journal Neurology by Professor Ian Deary of University of Edinburgh concluded, " Increased adherence to the MeDi has been linked with lower inflammation, better cognitive function, and reduced risk of Parkinson disease and Alzheimer disease and mortality from cardiovascular disease and cancer.... When examining individual food groups, their results indicated that higher fish and lower meat intake were the primary contributors to the observed effects on brain structure." This research confirmed similar findings from the University of Columbia published in the journal Neurology in 2015.
The focus on including fish in your diet is regarded as of particular importance for maintaining a healthy brain. John Stein, Professor of Physiology, University of Oxford, has highlighted that fish provides high concentrations of polyunsaturated omega 3 fats and vitamins A, D and K all firmly linked to reducing cardiovascular disease, neuro-inflammation and neural death. The National Health Service (NHS) 'livewell' website recommends two portions of fish per week one of which should be oily fish e.g. salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, fresh tuna (not canned) and trout. Fish oil capsules are a good alternative for those not keen on eating fish. Adult Education needs to help people to alter their diets by running lots of 'Time for the Med diet' to help educate people about what to eat with simple recipes and demonstrations and perhaps linked to ensuring that their children enjoy healthy meals.
Carry on working
For many the greatest aid to remaining cognitively alert is to carrying on working beyond retirement age. This may be in a part-time role or alternatively volunteering for a charity, or helping to run a local library or community centre etc. Research conducted by Professor Ann Bowling of University of Southampton studied the cognitive abilities of a sample of 9,119 people over a period of forty years from age eleven and revealed that those engaged in voluntary activities retained greater cognitive alertness. The study concluded, Adult social engagement through civic activities could potentially maintain cognitive function at age 50, independently of behavioural and socio-economic circumstances, supporting theories of neuroplasticity."In the year 2000 the employment rate in the UK for those over retirement age i.e. 65 was 5%. This has now doubled to 10.6% and in 2017 the Government launched a five year campaign to sharply increase the number of older people in work by 2022.
There are trailblazers out there:
• Joe Bartley from Devon embarked on a new career as a waiter at the age of eight-nine because he was bored at home.
• Jean Bishop, aged ninety-four, has been a fixture in Hull city centre since the year 2000 collecting money for the charity Age UK dressed in a honey bee costume. She has raised over £100,000 and was selected to carry the Olympic Torch for part of its route in 2012 and awarded a Pride of Britain award in 2013.
• Bette Nash is still employed as a flight attendant for American Airlines at the age of eighty-one because she enjoys working with people.
• Dr David Cowan is the oldest working scientist in the world at age 102. He contributes to ecology research in the Edith Cowan University, Perth.
Those still in their middle years need to guard against creeping sedentary behaviour. It is all too easy to lie back on the sofa but without actions in relation to learning, exercise and diet you are stoking-up a physical and cognitive slow down for your later years. Now that we can live to a 100+ you want your later years to be healthy years.