Do Something Different

How to use the other 9/10ths of your personality.

Staying Younger for Longer

Don’t succumb to aging

One habit of mine is to repeatedly say that the habits we have steal our life. I hope that repeating myself isn’t a sign of ageing but merely indicates my conviction that our personality and habits can rob us of life’s opportunities and wellbeing. This blog is about how to arrest that decline.

Older readers may feel that time flies faster as we age. It certainly does. That’s because we become more habitual as we get older. We run more of our life on ‘automatic pilot’. The range of things we do shrinks to an ever-smaller set. We live our lives on an ever-narrowing stage. We know what we like and what we don’t. And we work hard to expunge the latter without augmenting the former. Our personality gets more entrenched with age …… and so life rushes by. 

Sadly something else happens as we age. Degeneration. Physical and perhaps mental decline.

The question is, can we do anything about this? 

Do our bodies, and the cells that compose them, simply become less functional as we grow older? Do they inevitably lose their capacity for regeneration? This may be true to a degree, but I still hold to the notion that for many it is the idea of death that kills!

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People do the things older people do as they age. They wear beige and go caravanning. They watch more daytime TV and use the stairs less. It’s so easy to slip into thinking that’s what you do as you get older. Yet those behaviours themselves contain the seeds of aging. After all, the differences in physical condition between people of the same age is often much larger than the differences between ages! For example, most 30 year-olds cannot run a marathon. Yet Ed Whitlock was over 70 years old when he ran one in under 3 hours in 2003. Then there’s Fauja Sing, a UK citizen, who was 100 when he completed the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 2011.

Decline isn’t inevitable for all. 

There’s no denying, though, that many will succumb to dementia as they age. But there’s now more than a glimmer of hope that even that could be avoidable.

Dementia wreaks havoc upon the cognitive processes. It eats away at the personality of the sufferer. The economic costs of health and social care for dementia will outstrip cancer and heart disease combined within 20 years (World Alzheimer’s Report, 2010). There is no established treatment or cure. Yet scientists know that about 50% of dementia is related to modifiable risk factors. These include physical inactivity, obesity, depression and their concomitants such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

Now new research, incorporating my Do Something Different technique, suggests that flexing your personality and habits could help prevent dementia and stave off some of the ravages of old age.

A group of researchers, led by Dr. Thomas Dannhauser, presented a report to the Alzheimer's Association International Conference 2012 in Vancouver, Canada, of a new intervention to delay Alzheimer’s. They tested 77 patients with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), average age 73 years, on a new 3-month physical and brain activity schedule. 

MCI is an early sign of Alzheimer's disease. Sufferers have memory loss and other signs of cognitive decline and about 80% of them will develop Alzheimer’s disease within 6 years. In the USA it is estimated that about 10% of people between 70-79 years old will have MCI, rising to nearly 40% for those over 85 years. Women are more likely to get MCI, although virtually nothing is known about the causes or the cures.

So MCI is a serious personal, social and economic issue. 

In the trial all participants took part in a 4-week Do Something Different programme. This was designed to break some of their habits and make them more amenable to trying new things. Simple things like sitting in a different seat, or having a day without TV. They then did 12 weeks of activities, including walks 3 times a week, various social activities and ‘brain’ training. 

One of the major findings in this intervention pilot study was that the number of Do Something Different activities the people did was associated with how many walks they did, their improved cardiovascular fitness, and the degree to which they engaged in cognitive sessions. The study also showed benefits from the control to the intervention phase in measures of executive functioning in the brain.

So perhaps I should now follow my “Habits steal your life” saying with, “and Do Something Different may help prevent age-related mental decline”. Of course much more research is needed to confirm these findings but, since doing things differently is fun too, what have you got to lose?

Ben C. Fletcher, D.Phil, Oxon, is a Professor of Psychology, a behavior change expert, and author of Flex: Do Something Different — How to use the other 9/10ths of your personality.

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