I was looking through the Sunday papers – again – hoping to come across an idea which I could use to write my Tuesday retirement blog. It’s not that I didn’t have any ideas – driving up to the vineyard / barn to enable a couple of friends to stay overnight in the barn and hence be literally at the roadside when the Tour de Yorkshire struggled past ( the barn is on a very steep hill). We spent the day in Pateley Bridge 7 miles away which meant the race passed within 15 metres of two of our properties, in the case of Pateley they were going very quickly down a hill (I’ve used one of Mrs Summerhouse’s photos as the visual for this blog), watching the race on TV then stepping outside to watch the reality, worrying about whether our friends would survive the night etc. etc. Quite a weird day. Or I could write about spending three days last week working with my son to build a pergola in a client’s garden and all the mixed emotions that experience brought along with it, or my poor health for the last couple of weeks which has been quite dispiriting or, on a more optimistic note, I could write about our upcoming trip to Ireland. So yes, plenty to focus on but none of the above topics felt quite right.
I’d waited until today (Sunday) to start writing wondering if my grand theory about The Observer’s colour supplement’s article Inner Life would, as predicted, provide me with a focus. I have saved one that I could use on ‘perception’ from last week but I thought I would wait and see what this Sunday’s article was about. I think after two weeks my grand idea died a bit, unfortunate choice of verb given that this week’s article was about coping with grief. I suppose you could argue that, when we’re getting on a bit, this might turn out to be a very appropriate subject for my blog. But no, my heart just wasn’t in it. I moved on.
Then in the Science and Tech part of The New Review section I spotted a two-page article entitled Don’t Just Retire, Rewire. Good title but could the article itself live up to it? As always the answer seemed to me to be – partially. I’ll give you a summary and judge for yourself. The sub-heading was Strenuous mental exercise is vital to a healthy old age and can help fight illness. I know there are people who, having retired, engage in activities such as Sudoka, Scrabble, crosswords etc with the firm belief that such activity will stave off dementia and general cognitive decay. Apparently they’re barking up the wrong tree because the key word above is ‘strenuous’ and those activities are not difficult enough, the ‘thinking is not hard enough’ to have any benefit. It seems like the cognitive exercise have to hurt, they have to be unpleasant, to have the desired effect.
Apparently there are those among us who are now described as superagers i.e. people who remain super alert in their ‘old age’, and these people age so brilliantly because they ‘continually challenge themselves to learn new things outside of their comfort zone’. They persevere in the face of adversity, even welcome it, they show grit as the article puts it. Again key words ‘outside their comfort zone’. The problem is that many of us as we get older take steps to remain within our comfort zone, we try and avoid unpleasantness – ‘quit irritating jobs, take relaxing holidays, we pursue happiness’ not discomfort. I’m not sure about the examples but for me trying to avoid unpleasantness (not successfully) has most definitely become an ambition. So this part really struck a chord. It seemed to be saying that taking things easy, kicking back and relaxing, becoming more philosophical about life’s little irritations or planning to avoid them altogether, is actually bad for us. The article went on to say and I’ll produce this verbatim so the message is clear.
Not all stress is bad, however. Research suggests that you need some amount of stress in your life if you want to stay mentally sharp – in particular, the momentary stress that comes with hard work. Your nervous system evolved so that occasional bouts of stress, where you tax your body and brain for a short time, is necessary to keep your brain healthy as you age.
Now I’m not going to try and describe the science behind this (I haven’t the space or the knowledge to do this), you’ll have to read the article for that, so I’m going to skip to the part of the article that contains the recommendations for staying mentally alert after 65 (their measure not mine) or increase your chances of becoming a superager. Their tips, in very summarised / truncated form, are:
- Engage in strenuous mental activity on a regular basis. Take classes that you find challenging. Push past the discomfort that comes with learning.
- If you aren’t exercising regularly begin doing so. Vigorous physical effort again past the point of unpleasantness may have similar effects on your brain as hard mental effort.
- Eat healthy food and get enough sleep.
In other words in order to remain super alert, you need to suffer mentally and physically. I start fairly well and drop off with this list. I may not be trying to learn a new instrument but I am trying, sometimes with great emotional and cognitive discomfort, to learn new forms of playing (jazz piano for example). Writing this blog can be a challenge. Overall I’ll give myself a 7 out of 10 for this first one. Second, we do walk a couple of hours a day which is much more than we would do if we didn’t have the pups, but it isn’t really strenuous. If, as the article has it, ‘vigorous past the point of unpleasantness’ is the key then I’m probably not much above a 5 in this one. The last one, bloody healthy eating that always has to crawl in there somehow doesn’t it. I’m sorry but if that means salads and vegetables then sign me up for the funny farm. Sleep, well we stay in bed a long time but I think both of us worry about the actual quality of our sleep. Again I might squeeze out a 5 for this score. My qualifications for the position of superager are, therefore, not brilliant.
So there we are retirement and mental alertness. I probably haven’t done this article any favours having reduced it to its very basics and my very basics at that but, as I say, if it sounds intriguing read the original in The Observer, 30th April, New Review Section. I don’t think I’m going to be actively seeking out stress, unpleasantness and discomfort, no matter what the reported benefits, but at least when they do come along unbidden, I can take pleasure in the knowledge (nearly said the ‘fact’, but then this is science and as we know scientists change their recommendations on a daily basis) that somehow, in my retirement years, it’s good for me.