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  1. What is good for your brain is good for you and for your happiness. Although the brain is not a muscle, exercise can stimulate its growth and regeneration in a similar way to a workout providing greater muscularity. Research in the field of neuroplasticity has shown that many aspects of the brain can be altered (or are "plastic") even into adulthood. By building new brain tissue, it is possible to overcome cognitive impairment and – at the most fundamental level – to feel a higher degree of engagement in the world and of overall happiness.  Recent studies have shown that physical exercise can improve brain functions. In one research paper published by Elsevier Inc., it was discovered that a key player in intracellular proteolysis – Cathepsin B – was found to be secreted in the body in greater quantities in runners than in people who had taken no exercise. Put simply; this means that the memory function of the human brain is improved by simply taking exercise.  Psychologists like Dr Matthew Edlund, who has published books like “Designed to Last”, have pointed out that similar restorative effects on the brain which have been derived from physical activity have been found in other species, too. So, should we work our brains like a muscle if we want to feel higher happiness in some cognitive training programme? Well, yes. But that is not the full story. For anyone wishing to overcome cognitive impairment, then other things, such as social activities, are just as important as the exercise itself.  In all, there are five different categories to consider if you want to be happier in yourself and to avoid the sort of cognitive impairment that is all too often prevalent in older age. Let's examine what we can all do to keep our brains in good condition so that we feel better about ourselves right now and in the future.  How to Reduce Cognitive Impairment Cognitive Training In fact, as far as your brain function is concerned it matters little what you learn, so long as you engage in learning itself. According to no less an authority than the Alzheimer's Association, a body which knows a thing or two about cognitive impairment, there are plenty of tasks we can give our brains which will guard against the condition in the future. According to them, formal education is known to reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Crucially, this is the case no matter when it is taken in life.  If you think that attending classes is for children or for people who need to upskill during the early part of their career, then there is little doubt that you are right. That it is also for middle-aged people and recently retired folk is equally as valid, however. Regarding happiness and fighting off cognitive impairment, there can be few better tactics than learning about something you are already interested in in a formal way.  Cognitive training might take the form of learning a foreign language ahead of an overseas holiday or studying a little art history to make that next trip to the gallery a more informed experience. In fact, as far as your brain function is concerned it matters little what you learn, so long as you engage in learning itself. However, if a classroom environment is not for you, then why not consider other methods of engaging your brain with new skills. Meditation, Bridge classes or logic puzzles will train your brain to work in new ways, especially games which need you to think strategically. Such activities have been widely researched in study programmes – many of them indicating clear beneficial outcomes for the brain.  Social Activities Selfless though it might seem, joining a local community volunteer group might be the best thing you ever do for yourself. Like cognitive training, being social creates better brain functions because it forces the brain to work in specific ways. If you are locked away from the world to an extent, then not being sociable can become a habit. It may lead to the brain's neural pathways shifting over time to the extent that you never feel like engaging in social activities again. To prevent this, take affirmative steps to ensure you are not cut off from your neighbours, family and friends.  Taking a role in your local community does not merely derive benefits for those around you – it will help your brain to remain active in a meaningful way which will help to prevent neural problems in future. Selfless though it might seem, joining a local community volunteer group might be the best thing you ever do for yourself. Of course, just being around people is often enough to induce the brain's chemicals that make us feel better about ourselves. Chatting, interacting, learning and teaching are all things that will keep your brain active, too.  Throwing yourself into a new group is an excellent way of proceeding but – let's be honest – this is not for everyone. Some of us are just a little shy, and this great leap can seem too much – to begin with, anyway. If you want to take care of your brain, then take smaller steps, to start with. Why not pick up the phone to a friend you haven't spoken to in a while and just ask them how they are? It is a great way to get the ball rolling and strong social connections are a main ingredient for a good life.  Nutritional Intake Like any part of our bodies, brains are made of the matter we consume. Without the right ingredients, it is hard for the body to make the right proteins and enzymes for regeneration. In other words, the brain needs you to eat healthily for it to continue functioning correctly as you age. On the face of it, eating healthily for a part of the body to remain healthy is obvious, right? However, you should bear in mind that a healthy brain is also likelier to mean a happier life, so it is not just about your physical well-being, but your mental well-being, too.  According to a study by Martha Clare Morris, et al, of the Department of Internal Medicine at the Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago, a hybrid of a Mediterranean and a so-called stop hypertension diet will slow down cognitive decline. Morris' work dealt with 923 participants who were aged from 58 to 98 years and engaged in what is often referred to as a DASH diet. Essentially, such a diet is low in trans fats, rich in potassium and calcium and requires a smaller salt intake. By limiting dairy and meat in favour of vegetables, whole grains and fruit, you can eat your way to a healthier brain.  Long considered to be good for the brain, the consumption of fish is also useful. According to a 2014 paper in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, baked or broiled fish eaten on a weekly basis will mean you have more grey matter – on average – compared with people who don't have this level of consumption. Bear in mind that fried fish did not make up any part of the research, however. Also, the fatty acids, like omega-3, found in fish seem to work better when consumed as food rather than as a dietary supplement, as reported in Time magazine. Perhaps this suggests fish have some unknown improving effect on brains?  Physical Activity People who are physically active will tend to have better brain health. As mentioned already, recent scientific studies have shown the connection between running and brain regeneration, but that is far from the full story. Of course, activities like swimming, dancing or even brisk walking will all release endorphins in the body. Not only is it good for the brain to become a little breathless due to exercise – it makes you feel happier due to the release of these endorphins. Some scientists have suggested that the body functions this way because the build-up of carbon dioxide in the body caused by exercise is balanced by the kick of natural opioids. In other words, your body rewards you with a natural high if you exercise. Few people who take regular exercise would argue that they feel better as a result of working out, not just while they do it but for some time afterwards.  It is important to note that exercise is not just about maintaining good cognitive abilities. It can help the brain recover where it might have been going into decline. According to research by Elise Wogensen, et al., of the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, the exercise in a large number of cases can promote cognitive recovery after an injury that the brain has sustained. Although there are some factors which are still to be established as to how this works, Wogensen's work indicates strongly that physical activity and restoring brain functions are linked and that the rehabilitation of 'lost' brain functions is possible.  Management of Heart Health Risk Factors According to the Alzheimer's Association, the factors that are already known to impact on heart health and which combat heart disease are also fully linked to delaying or even preventing the onset of dementia. One of these is taking frequent exercise, which we have already discussed. Other measures include stopping smoking and reducing stress. Heart health can also be maintained better by keeping on top of obesity levels and of reducing blood cholesterol, both important to future brain health, too. Lastly, it should be said that anyone who has diabetes should manage this in a way that is conducive to good heart health. If so, then the brain is likely to be kept in good condition, as well.  Modelphoto: colourbox.com  Written by Ed GouldEd Gould is a UK-based journalist and freelance writer. He is a practitioner of Reiki.
  2. As we age, some of us may find that life can become more stressful rather than easier, making knowledge of how to achieve stress relief vitally important. As retirement grows nearer, we look forward to the changes that this will bring, starting by planning to do the many things that we never had time for during our busy working lives. However, according to Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health:  If we are not careful, retirement can bring about many health problems rather than contentment, and that we should look upon it as a ‘process rather than an event’. Planning your retirement Some of us have planned carefully for retirement and should remain financially secure, while others will suddenly face a drop in income. This can limit what we can achieve. According to research carried out by Dr George E. Vaillant, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, they discovered that there are several ways in which retired seniors, even those of 80 years and above, can remain happy and healthy, with a rewarding lifestyle that does not require a high level of income. These include: Make new friends - when retiring from work, you will leave many of your friends behind, but by building a new social network of like-minded, similarly, aged people will prove to be good for both your physical and mental health Join clubs - there are so many to choose from, including sports such as golf, swimming and tennis, ballroom dancing, walking and bridge. They will not only get you out of the house but also provide the opportunity to make new friends Keep your mind and body active - take up painting or gardening, perhaps learn a new hobby, something that you have always wanted to do. Learn a new language or take a study course, and maybe, get a dog who will not only be a great companion but will also get you out walking and meeting people All these suggestions are not only enjoyable but also provide excellent stress relief tips which will keep body and soul together, while also having fun. Make the most of every moment because, as this quote from Ausonius says: "Let us never know what old age is. Let us know the happiness time brings, not count the years”.  Every day is precious, and stress relief can be found in something as simple as writing things down or talking to a friend. Stress and how it affects our health A handy fact sheet produced by the APA Office on Ageing and Committee on Ageing suggests that, if we are not careful, stress can affect us very badly during our senior years. They say that one of the simplest ways to remain healthy is to eat nourishing food, helping us to maintain a reasonable weight, and to take regular exercise. They explain stress as being caused by our bodies responding to danger, so releasing hormones into the bloodstream, which will then speed up the heart and increase the pulse rate; it is known as the ‘stress response’. They go on to explain that research has shown that too much stress will impair our immune system, so decreasing our ability to fight off disease and mental health problems. They offer several stress relief tips, as follows: Stay positive - avoid negative talk such as, “I’m too old”, or, “I can't-do it anymore”. This type of talk will not help, and, while you may feel that doing nothing is your solution, this will certainly not provide stress relief. Thinking about what you can do instead is one of many great stress relief tips Stay focused - never feel helpless because, no matter how difficult something might seem, there is always a solution. Each problem is a test or a challenge, that will keep your mind active as you consider your options. This, in turn, will provide stress relief, as nothing is insurmountable Meditation - relaxation techniques and especially MBSR (meditation based stress reduction) have been developed to deal with stress based on techniques that have been around for centuries. According to Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, just 10 minutes a day can help to control stress, reduce anxiety and contribute to improving cardiovascular health, which in consequence will also provide stress relief. She goes on to say that meditative techniques were first pioneered in America, during the 1970’s, by Harvard physician Herbert Benson. It has since gained acceptance worldwide, by both doctors and therapists, to be a valuable complementary therapy for symptom relief of many different illnesses. Dr Stöppler states that “No matter how the relaxation state is achieved, the physical and emotional consequences of stress can be reduced through regular practice”. Stress relief, in this form, can also lead to happiness and inner peace. For a first glance at stress relieving meditation practices try "Mindfulness daily" - an easy to follow course developed by Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield. Understanding retirement Every one of us will see retirement differently; how we use all this extra time that we suddenly have on our hands depends very much on individual circumstances, according to Harvard Health Publications. They go on to explain that, if your job has been tiring, boring or unrewarding, then retirement will come as a great relief. Whereas, those of us that have thoroughly enjoyed our work and thrived on the structured lifestyle will see retirement in an entirely different way; this in itself may require important stress relief tips. A couple who are happily married, or in a long-standing relationship, are far more likely to enjoy their retirement than someone whose home life is anything but stable and may already be stressed. Healthy retirees will be looking forward to an active and rewarding time, whereas, those who are in bad health will not have this option. Whichever category you fit into, still keep as active as possible and keep your mind and body busy.  Seeking Help For Stress Relief One of the biggest stress relief tips offered by the fact sheet produced by the APA, is to seek help before everything gets on top of you. We tend to avoid the word psychologist, but they are often the best people to help with stress relief. There are three therapeutic ways that can help seniors to start to enjoy life: Cognitive behavioural therapy - this will explore and help to discover the underlying reasons for stress and contributes to change negative thoughts into positive ones Supportive therapy - often a non-judgemental ear can help to justify why feelings of anxiety exist and to offer stress relief tips to introduce a more positive way of thinking Relaxation training - related to meditation, it also includes education about stress and tension and how to achieve muscle relaxation What you can do to help yourself Dr Dossett, recommends talking to loved ones or close friends, as well as visiting your doctor. Talking about problems that are stressing you can sometimes lead to a solution, but, healthwise, as Dr Dossett explains, your doctor will be able to check your blood pressure and recommend a healthy lifestyle change, particularly with diet; anti-depressants are also an option for the severely distressed. He also states that one of the best stress relief tips is to focus on triggering exactly the opposite of the stress response - the relaxation response - through, as previously mentioned, MBSR, meditation or tai chi, yoga and deep breathing exercises. All of these will lower oxygen consumption and the heart and breathing rate, so reducing blood pressure and stress hormones, helping to maintain a much more positive outlook on life.  As American actress Valerie Bertinelli so aptly said:  Happiness is a choice. You can choose to be happy. There's going to be stress in life, but it's your choice whether you let it affect you or not.    Modelphotos by colourbox.com  Written by Marilyn Coates-LowerI am a free spirit who wakes up with a smile every morning. My life has been an adventure and, although now officially retired, I continue to work as a writer and proofreader. I live in a stunning part of Brittany, France together with my horse and cat, enjoying views of the woods that surround my house and across the valley to the village. By way of my experiences, I hope to inspire people, through my writing, to become more positive, happy and forward thinking.