Sunday 30 January 2011

Keep fit with comping!

Have you ever had a "senior moment"? Yes, even if you are still in your twenties, I expect you get occasional lapses of memory, and common wisdom has it that as we get older they become more frequent. In fact one in ten people over 50 has memory problems, and as many as one in four over sixties shows signs of clinical dementia, which in some cases could be the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease.

When you have a forgetful spell, you may jokingly blame your "grey matter" - and you would be right to do so. The human brain weighs about 1.4kg (3lb) and is made up of nerve cells, or neurones (over 100 billion of them!) connected by pathways called synapses. The neurones are grey, and in a young adult make up about 40% of the brain, so it really is filled with "grey matter". But as you get older, the number of brain cells dwindles until they make up as little as 20% of the brain. So as you get older your grey matter, unlike your hair,  will become considerably less grey!

And yet we all know of people who are mentally alert well into old age. Mary Wesley didn't even start to write books until she was in her seventies, and the late Queen Mother was active in public life until well after her hundredth birthday. Is there anything we can do to improve our chances of avoiding the mental slide into senility?

The factors that cause senile memory decline are many and varied, but there is one thing that has been noted time and time again in studies. Whatever other factors were being tested, the people who showed least degeneration were the ones who were most mentally active. In other words, the brain needs to be exercised just like the rest of your body and the motto "use it or lose it" is vitally important. And we compers just love to flex our mental muscles. Puzzles, crosswords, searching for answers to questions, writing tiebreakers - our brains are always busy. Board and card games such as chess and bridge can also keep you mentally active, but researchers think that the very maximum benefit can be gained from using the language-related areas of the brain. So we compers are in the best position of all!

Much research has shown that exercising the brain regularly, in ways such as solving puzzles and creative writing (e.g. tiebreakers!), can help to slow down the degeneration in the brain, by preserving the links between the brain cells that would otherwise atrophy due to lack of use. Although older people have fewer brain cells, a well-preserved brain can use the links between the cells more efficiently, and one study has even suggested that regular intellectual activity can actually help new brain cells to form. And this doesn't just apply to elderly people - the brain starts to deteriorate long before we notice any problems, so it is important to keep it in trim throughout your life. A recent study showed that those who were mentally active in their forties and fifties were significantly less likely to suffer from Alzheimer's Disease in later life. But even those who only became active later in life showed significant benefits from it - it's never too late to start!

Mental exercise have also been shown many times to help to prevent and even cure depression, so once again comping can be a healthy activity. And on the subject of depression, there is some evidence that successfully completing a puzzle releases the hormone serotonin into the body. This helps to combat stress and depression - yet another benefit of being a comper!

Other chemicals are released into the body during concentrated mental activity too - research in Australia has found that the whole of the immune system can be boosted by doing puzzles and crosswords on a regular basis, helping to improve physical health and potentially adding several healthy years to a person's lifespan.

So, whether you are a couch potato or a gym bunny, don't forget your daily mental work out - one you can do in your comfiest armchair with a cup of tea beside you. Bliss! And remember, unlike your muscles, you can't strain your brain!

Please note that this information, although based on published research, is intended to be light-hearted should not be regarded as a substitute for proper medical advice.

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