Finding happiness in old age

Research shows that our ‘third age’ – the years after we retire – can be the most rewarding.

Health Agenda magazine
May 2017

For generations we’ve been told that our best years are our adolescence and young adulthood. Perhaps it’s not surprising; for most of history, relatively few of us have lived through to the period we now think of as ‘old age’.

Now, demographic trends in industrialised countries across the world point to a new reality where elderly people, benefiting from increasingly sophisticated health care, constitute a major chunk of their populations.

In recent years, governments and institutions have begun to focus on the so-called third age of life and fret about how it might affect society. Meanwhile, younger family members worried about older relatives suffering potentially debilitating medical conditions such as dementia and stroke. Our growing elderly population became a source of stress and tension.

A golden age

But sentiment is beginning to shift. Experts in the emerging field of gerontology, the scientific study of old age, are beginning to look the potential benefits of reaching the third age.

“A number of studies show that the third age appears to be a peak time for social and emotional functioning,” says Dr Tim Windsor, Director of the Flinders Centre for Ageing Studies (FCAS) in Adelaide. “This seems to be – at least in part – a result of people changing their goals with ageing.

Rather than focusing on building up the resources needed for success in the future, as people get older their day-to-day lives become more concerned with maximising the quality of their emotional experiences in the present. This is often achieved by fostering high-quality social relationships with family and friends.”

Continuing education

As we begin to think about the third age as something to be relished rather than endured, organisations are springing up to provide support and help foster connections within the group. Perhaps the most high profile of these is the University of the Third Age (U3A).

U3A boasts about 250 branches across Australia with a combined total of more than 85,000 members. The diversity of classes on offer is staggering – a small sampling includes opera, German language and Pilates – and Peken says the trend within the organisation is towards even greater variety. “It’s not just the intellectual,” she explains.

“There is a recognition that doing physical things – dance or yoga or croquet – and keeping your body moving also involves the brain. It’s coordination, it’s balance.”

Sense of purpose

Peken and other leaders of the U3A movement have been struck by the growing role that ‘third agers’ play in the lives of their adult children and their grandchildren, and have begun to shape their programs accordingly.

“Social structure is changing and more of our members are being called on by their families to look after their grandchildren – not just in the school holidays,” Peken says. “In response to that, something we’ve brought in over the past 5 years is stand-alone talks that don’t require an ongoing commitment.”

U3A envisages a third age where retirees juggle a range of activities, including care for their families, involvement in peer-led education and participation in physical and social activities, in much the same way as they did earlier in life. The idea of a busy retirement may not be you imagined, but researchers say this sort of highly interactive lifestyle may be a powerful preventive health measure.

“Our research and the work of others shows that older people with a greater sense of purpose in their lives on average show better physical and mental health, and also live longer,” Dr Windsor says.

Continuous learning

Maree McCabe, Alzheimer’s Australia’s acting national CEO, supports the idea that the third age should be full of activity, and stresses that regularly learning new skills is a habit that should be taken up earlier in adulthood.

“Regularly challenging yourself with mentally stimulating activities is associated with better brain function and reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia,” she says. “Learning new things in study, at work and in leisure time all contributes to challenging the mind throughout life and helping the brain function efficiently.”

McCabe explains that the process of learning something new, whether it’s a new language or new dance steps, actually grows your brain. “Research has shown that regularly using your cognitive skills and exercising your brain builds a reserve of healthy and efficient brain cells and connections,” she says.

Positive outlook

McCabe also emphasises the importance of well-rounded risk prevention. “Exercise gives the brain a healthy boost,” she says by way of example. “It increases blood flow to the brain, stimulates the growth of brain cells and the connections between them, and is associated with larger brain volume. Regular physical activity also reduces the risk of high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol, which are all associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

“The best forms of brain training include learning a new skill or language or challenging your brain with an activity like dancing,” she adds.

“Like muscle memory, our brains develop a memory for habits, so doing a sudoku or crossword puzzle every day is not going to be challenging once your brain learns the patterns and gets better at them.”

The key message is to pay attention to your entire lifestyle. “It’s important to note that risk reduction doesn’t occur in a vacuum,” McCabe says. “The more you combine these steps, the more they’ll be effective in preventing a whole range of chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, obesity and dementia.”

Growing older inevitably brings with it a degree of worry, both for those who are reaching the third age and for those around them. But experts across the field of gerontology seem optimistic about the collective future of our ageing population.

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