We all change as we age. It's one of those inescapable facts of life. But no matter what age we may be, it turns out there are some very simple things we can do that help keep our bodies and minds continuing at our highest potential. So we've searched high and low to identify the “five pillars” generally considered to be the most influential for healthy ageing. And as we'll see, hearing plays a central role in all of them.
The five pillars of healthy ageing are:
So let's now take a deeper look at what they mean for us in practical terms and where our hearing comes in.
There are so many different ways to communicate today that it's never been easier to keep in touch, rekindle old friendships and start new ones. In her book, The Village Effect: Why Face-to-Face Contact Matters award-winning psychologist Susan Pinker says:
“Now new findings tell us that our relationships—the people we know and care about—are just as critical to our survival. And not just any kind of social contact, mind you, but the kind that takes place in real time, face-to-face.”
Face-to-face interaction means putting ourselves into situations where we will meet others, in situations where conversation can happen… and that will always be easier if we’re confident our hearing is up to the task.
So how do we get ourselves into those situations? Here are some suggestions:
Activities like exercise or dance classes, arts & crafts clubs, volunteer positions or learning groups can help us meet like-minded people with similar interests to ourselves. It's an easy way to organically expand on our social group because we have regular contact, together with an instant topic for starting conversation.
Friendships begin through reaching out. Is there an old work colleague you could drop a line to, or even a “friend of a friend”? Social media and email make it easier than ever to test the water and arrange meeting up for coffee or a drink. That way we're creating opportunities for interaction, the bedrock of a friendship.
When you next receive an invitation to an event (birthday, weddings, Christmas/New Year/celebration parties, house-warmings, functions, parties…), find an excuse to say "yes". It's not always easy—it can take effort (especially for introverts). But if we go with the intention of saying ‘hello’ and introducing ourselves we'll likely find that most people will be happy to get to know someone new, and probably welcome us breaking the ice!
Nowadays families can be spread across the world. Facetime and Skype make it especially easy to keep in touch face-to-face, in real-time. If we've lost contact with a loved ones we may even be able to trace them through a number of websites that search local archives.
Hearing is the Social Sense. If we're meeting up with people who find hearing in background noise difficult, or our own hearing range is reduced, try and choose restaurants that have carpets and tablecloths – it will reduce the noise and echo. And of course, we should always make sure our own hearing is kept at its best with routine hearing checks and up to date with the latest hearing technology.
Research shows there's a strong link between hearing difficulties and withdrawal from social interaction—so it's important we don't let ourselves or our friends fall in the trap of fading away unnecessarily.
When we were children, everything was new to us so we were constantly learning and problem-solving, all of which is known to stimulate growth in our brains.
As adults we can easily fall into the trap of increasing sameness and routine, which means:
In other words: less stimuli = less opportunities for our brains to grow. Why? Because we our brains can “get by” on past experience.
(Think about how some older people tend to reminisce more, and you'll get the picture.)
So it's vital for brain growth that we deliberately keep ourselves stimulated—by putting ourselves in situations where we have to learn and solve problems. That's why lifelong learning is so important to mental health and well-being. Fortunately today there are plenty of opportunities around:
Many universities from around the world now offer distance learning and “Massive Online Open Courses” (or MOOCs). Perhaps the best known is the Open University where we can work towards a qualification or degree. But there are also plenty of short courses available on a whole host of topics, many of them free. As a starting point, check out what Coursera, Udemy and Future Learn have to offer.
Remember too that most local colleges offer night classes in everything from learning a new language, to creative writing, to sharpening up our maths skills. Not only will we be learning something new, we'll be getting that all important face-to-face interaction that we rarely get from online courses.
If we are no longer in full time work but enjoy learning and want a new way way to meet people, the U3A is a great avenue, and very active locally in Devon. Members are encouraged to share educational, creative and leisure activities and often arrange outings and visits. Similarly, local Probus Clubs are aimed at retired business men and women who want to maintain a social network with others with similar interests.
Volunteering is a flexible and rewarding activity with plenty of opportunities for meeting people, discovering new interests and developing new skills. You could try a local museum or art gallery, a charity or an organisation such as the National Trust or English Heritage.
Timebanking is a way for people to mutually help each other. For example, one person may need some help gardening whilst another needs a lift somewhere. As a participant you would list the skills and experience you can offer and those that they may need, then exchange their own time/experience/skills for someone else's. It's a good way to utilise skills you may have whilst giving the opportunity to others to help you.
Learning a musical instrument brings together so many aspects important for stimulating the brain. First, there's the challenge of learning a new skill. Then there's being able to remember notes/chords/finger patterns. There's the need to aim towards accomplishing something in the future. And finally there's the practice and self-discipline. Our local music shop should be able to advise us how best to learn a new instrument and may be able to put us in touch with a tutor.
It goes without saying just how important hearing is in ongoing learning and keeping ourselves stimulated—whether it's listening to a lecture, participating in group discussion, asking/answering questions, sharing experiences with others, learning a language or musical instrument or picking up those incidental bits of information that get us thinking along new lines.
Exercise is essential for our mental and physical well being; even just gentle exercise a few times a week helps keep the blood and oxygen pumping round our bodies and brains. Exercise reduces stress and decreases the risk of dementia, as well as all the other good stuff we associate with keeping fit. It’s even good for our hearing, which relies upon a healthy blood and oxygen supply.
So deliberately make time for it—put it on our calendar! Find an exercise buddy! (There’s nothing like some healthy competition to keep us going!). Download a fitness app! Whatever we need to do to make it a normal part of our lives…
Walking requires no specialist equipment – just a supportive pair of trainers (or walking boots) and a raincoat for bad weather. It’s perfect for all ages and all degrees of fitness. And it doesn't need to be a hike across the moors. Just ditching the car when we visit the shops, or taking the stairs instead of the lift are easy ways to naturally add more walking into our day. (Of course if we do want to take our walking more seriously, there are plenty of rambling groups around!)
Gardening can be a great strength building exercise thanks to all that digging and shovelling. There's even evidence that gardening is good for mental health. It’s a rewarding hobby too, because we see efforts blossom and grow as times goes on. And it doesn't require much space—we can plant in pots or tubs too. (Remember if you're using a strimmer or hedge-cutters, use the appropriate hearing protection.)
“Swimming is the best form of exercise.” It may be a cliché, but swimming offers a number of unique health benefits. Firstly, water doesn't put stress on our bones, muscles or joints – so we can give ourselves a thorough workout without the impact we’d get from other activities like running or tennis. Secondly, water is denser than air so we have to work harder to move around—all that water resistance builds strength, increases lung capacity, and improves balance. Thirdly, water is calming – it gives our brains a rest from all that environmental clutter and stimulation!
Both Yoga and Tai Chi combine strengthening, balancing, flexibility and breathing exercises that have been shown to boost physical and mental wellbeing. There are many types of groups to suit a diverse range of individuals, experience and ability – so find a teacher or class that suits you.
Our bodies and brain can only work with the things we put into it. If we’re feeding it rubbish, it accelerates the processes involved in ageing. It's as simple as that.
If we’re clogging up our arteries, there's less blood and oxygen getting to our brains and our hearing. If we’re supplying it with toxins (e.g. smoking, alcohol) rather than nutrients, it's going to systematically destroy the cells in our bodies. Like a giant game of Jenga, there eventually comes a point where everything falls apart.
Not only does poor diet increase our risk of strokes, dementia, diabetes, heart disease and countless other diseases, but it also erodes our hearing ability (and therefore everything else that depends on our hearing). So our diet is a key factor to staying healthy throughout life.
For advice on maintaining a healthy diet, see the new NHS Eatwell Guide.
Throughout adulthood, our sleep patterns change: we tend to stir more frequently because our sleep cycles are no longer as “deep” as they once were. Yet sleep remains essential for us, because this is when our bodies and brains get to carry out routine maintenance made possible by being ‘off-line’. During sleep, the brain strengthens memories and learning experienced the previous day. Plus, if we've had a good night’s sleep, our stress levels are lower and our thinking remains sharper the following day.
So what can we do to promote a good night’s sleep?
Use the bedroom solely for sleeping and not for stimulating activities such as watching TV, checking emails or updating social media. Keep to a regular schedule for getting up and going to bed, and avoid cat-napping during the day, or falling asleep in front of the TV. Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol later on the day.
Mindfulness is a meditation-based practice that can help with a more restful sleep by calming the mind and relaxing the body. The book Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world is a good starting point—it contains a CD with it that talks you through the exercises. Alternatively look for a local group or try one of the smartphone apps such as Calm or Headspace.
Clear the clutter and keep the bedroom a space for relaxing the body and mind—some say a symmetrical room creates harmony and calm. Consider all your senses: the firmness of the mattress, the feel of the pillow and bedsheets, the sounds around you, the light in the room, the room temperature and air circulation.
Our ears remain open whilst we sleep – monitoring our surroundings for the unexpected, keeping us safe. But if we're kept awake by traffic, noisy neighbours, a snoring partner or other unwanted sounds, we can try using sleep plugs. They are made from a soft comfortable material and are custom made so we can wear them all night long.
Getting a good night's sleep makes it easier to cope with distractions the next day, which makes our social interactions easier and more positive (see 1 above). And because our concentration better, learning is easier too (see 2 above).
We've seen that just a few simple changes in the right places can have a huge impact further down the line, no matter what our age—because we know that what we do today builds the foundation for tomorrow.
We've also seen how each of the 5 Pillars work together, with hearing playing a central role. Both social interaction and keeping stimulated depends on maintaining good hearing, which in turn depends on good diet and regular exercise.
In conclusion, healthy ageing is about building on the right foundations: