If you had to choose, would you prefer to have your body or your brain fail first?
It seems that we all fear old age, and that’s perfectly understandable. There is a huge industry around anti-ageing products and techniques, from creams and potions, to exercise and lifestyle issues. I see a fair number of women even 10 years younger than me who are deteriorating physically at an alarming rate.
Of greater concern is the number of women, and men, who are deteriorating mentally, whether by reason of early dementia or, more commonly, from depression which is common in older people. It is often unrecognised and untreated. Geriatricians know that there is a condition that used to be called “involutional melancholia”, i.e. old age depression. Part of that syndrome is what I have come to call “elderly anorexia”, where older people tend to eat less and less and end up with malnutrition.
But when should we start to worry about this? When our parents are in their 70s or 80s? Or when we ourselves are in our 40s, 50s and 60s?Making the best of your physical and mental abilities never stops. From high school to marriage, to parenthood and beyond, we always have to make the best of our lot. Few are so well off that they never have to exert themselves, ever, to make money or to please a partner, or to get on with neighbours and friends without being boring.
It starts with us, me, myself and you, yourself.
How to take care of our bodies is well known but it is less clear how we should take care of our minds. After all, some of the great brains have succumbed to dementia, despite being at the very top of their professions. So what does it take? In medicine we continue to explore the chance of finding a gene for dementia (of which Alzheimer’s is only one form) and we hope to find some toxin that we can eliminate from our diet and environment before it is too late.
But when you look at those elderly who have escaped the dreaded mind-collapse, we find some interesting things….
They cultivate an attitude of contentment. They eat simply and sparingly, but good quality food. They continue to have friends and to entertain themselves and those around them. They exercise their brains as well as their bodies and get fresh air daily. Oxygen is a great boost to mental health! God rest them, but my parents lived into their 80s before dying of body issues rather than mental failings. My poor old Dad was so in control of his faculties that he was able to pretend to be deaf so that the young doctors spoke REALLY LOUDLY and SLOWLY to him, then he would turn and make a quick whispered aside to me at the bedside. I had to tell him to lay off as the doc was beginning to think he was crazy instead of sick!
But that is not the only answer. My friend’s father was a very famous QC who developed Alzheimer’s in spite of a lifetime of energetically defending a huge variety of persons, both here and abroad. So mental agility alone will not do. I did not know this man himself, but his son, my buddy, has plenty of cheerfulness and so we hope he will escape the same problem. Cultivating cheerfulness will make your life better, whether it changes your mental destiny or not, so why not do it anyway?!
I hope my formula works for my patients but so far, it has shown itself to be beneficial: Hair, teeth, nails and face all need attention, starting at age 40 if not before. Then body shape, exercise, diet and mind-set and friends to laugh with, and life will start going really well.
By the time you get yourself together with something worthwhile to do, someone to love and something to look forward to, you are well on your way to happiness, both now and in the future. Enjoy your body while your mind is agile and then IF your mind collapses, you won’t care so much about the body!!