We all read those scare stories suggesting that if you dare to retire then, without the intellectual stimulation that work brings, your brain will quickly turn to mush. Consequently I know people who diligently don't move from the breakfast table until they have at least had a good stab at completing the daily crossword or won't travel without a compendium of sudoku puzzles or brain training programmes. Whilst I enjoy the challenge of both crosswords and sudoku, to my chagrin they do not figure in my daily routine and I have been known to express fleeting concern that my mental capacity could be diminishing, without the constant taxing and testing that professional life brings.
I am therefore little short of euphoric to have learnt this week of a report from the Global Council on Brain Health that effectively dismisses the health benefits of puzzles and mind games. Instead the Council's report concludes that whilst we can have an impact on how our brains change as we age, the best activities to enhance a person's cognitive reserve involve activities that we find enjoyable and challenging, that encourage social engagement and teach new skills. The examples given by the report include learning tai chi, practising yoga (tick), taking a photography class (phew I did that one recently), investigating your genealogy (one of my favourite pastimes), juggling (humph), cooking (tick), gardening (tick), learning a language (tick) or musical instrument (others would not forgive me if I tried this with my lack of musical talent), creative writing and making art (tick), volunteering (big tick).
Indeed the report specifically emphasises the benefit of activities involving both physical and mental engagement and gives the examples of dancing and tennis. It accords exactly with the wise words spoken by my Zumba instructor who insists that the expenditure of energy during her class is incidental to the benefits to the brain as the blood flows to the head and we seek to memorise her routines, struggling to follow her footsteps.
However within the report are words of warning for the retired person. The study showed that cognitive decline (potentially leading to dementia or other conditions associated with ageing) can accelerate when people stop work if by retiring they cease to participate in cognitively stimulating activities.
The conclusions drawn from the report are accordingly that the benefits of what most people consider as brain training games are weak to non-existent and that instead we should find new ways to stimulate the brain and challenge how we think. We should choose activities that involve both mental engagement and physical activity and even better if they also incorporate social engagement and an altruistic purpose such as volunteering or mentoring.
Based on my retirement activity to date, it is a relief to know that I am potentially postponing the onset of dementia for a few years yet. Moreover by remaining mentally active and continuing to learn, the effect may even be prolonged for the whole of my lifespan. I'm not sure if I'll still be doing Zumba at 85, of course, but maybe at that stage the family will forgive me if I do decide to learn to play the trumpet instead.