Staying active is the key to aging well

Published on Thu, Jun 13, 2013 by Ian Ferguson

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A rolling stone gathers no moss – it’s an old adage, but also an adage for the old. Experts agree that elderly people who stay active – socially, physically and mentally – age better than those who don’t.

Theresa Taylor, administrator for Emeritus Assisted Living in Bellingham, has seen it first hand.

“It really is beneficial to stay busy,” she said. “Having something to get you out of bed in the morning, something to look forward to, keeps your mood up and your brain working. And it’s good to keep your brain working because it helps you stay sharp.”

Whether it’s meeting regularly with a group of friends, participating in a class or workshop or even doing crosswords, 
exercising the brain on a daily basis can have positive long-term effects. A number of studies show the benefits of staying mentally active. One study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health involved 2,802 adults aged 65 and older who attended brain-training sessions over a five- to six-week period. Those who took the training showed improvement in memory, reasoning and speed of processing information that lasted for at least five years. The effects translated into a 35.6 percent reduction in the risk of serious health-related quality of life decline.

While more studies need to be done to know for sure, scientists speculate that regular mental stimulation protects the brain by supporting the growth of new nerve cells and increasing communication between nerve cells.

Blaine Senior Center offers many classes, workshops and gaming groups, which are fun ways to keep an active mind. Quilters, knitters, whittlers and other crafters – and those wanting to learn – are welcome to attend the handicrafts workshops Tuesdays from 10:45 a.m. to noon. A lively pinochle group meets Wednesdays at 1 p.m. and Thursdays at 6 p.m. For those interested in learning about their family tree, a genealogy class that meets Thursdays at 10:30 a.m. can help. Play bridge Thursdays at 1 p.m., and bingo Fridays at 12:30 p.m. The billiards room is open to all members whenever the center is open.

Social activity is another way to give the brain a healthy workout, and it boosts quality of life in other ways as well, said Blaine Senior Center director Dana Hanks.

“Staying socially active definitely has a lot of mental health benefits, but a goal of the senior center is to provide a network and connections for people to be a part of a community,” she said. “As long as we can keep them healthy and support them in their own circle of friends, people don’t have to bail out of their community.”

Blaine Senior Center offers many social activities on a daily basis for seniors and the whole community. Community lunches Monday through Friday are open to anyone for $6, but those aged 60 and older need only give a suggested donation of $3-5. Public speakers or music acts often provide live entertainment during lunch. On Friday, June 14, for instance, the Pakawallups will put on a patriotic show with WWII-era songs to celebrate Father’s Day.

“There’s a lot of socializing at lunch,” Hanks said. “It’s a great way to stay connected and get a healthy meal at the same 
time.”

“The benefit of staying socially active is that it’s good for the mind as well as the body,” Taylor said. “We’ve got a summer barbeque coming up in August that’s always a big hit. We also do Fourth of July fireworks in the front yard, and people really enjoy that.”

Physical fitness has a direct link to long-term mental health. Neuroscience researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that subjects over 70 who exercised regularly actually had more grey matter – the part of the brain with nerve cell bodies – than those who didn’t. Locals seem to have caught on, as the gym at Blaine Senior Center is a popular hangout for Blaine and Birch Bay seniors.

Nautilus weights and other workout equipment at the gym provide ample ways to stay in shape. All newcomers to the gym must first take the “Strength Training for Seniors” class, a program developed at Western Washington University to help seniors learn proper technique and improve their balance before beginning a workout regimen. 

After that, gym members are free to work out on their own or join a class. Tai Chi and stretching classes, for example, are two popular and effective ways to work out in a group setting.

“Physical fitness is a huge part of aging well, and our gym has become very popular,” Hanks said. “I even have a 90-year-old woman who’s waiting at the door every morning for me to open up the gym. People love it.”