This article is sponsored by Aveo.
HUMANS are by nature social creatures.
Our brains are wired for social interaction so we unconsciously yearn connection.
So as we age and retirement nears the thought of being alone, of losing one's purpose and life generally slowing down hangs heavy in our minds.
Admittedly life takes a new direction but retirement doesn't have to be dull.
It's an open invitation to find meaningful things to do, challenge yourself, make new friends in your community and fill your calendar with exciting activities to look forward to.
In fact, recent neuroscience studies reveal the increasing value of social interaction, mental stimulation and physical activity as a preventative measure for cognitive decline and dementia.
This is otherwise known as 'environmental enrichment' according to globally recognised neuroscientist Professor Michael Nilsson, Director of the Hunter Medical Research Institute and a University of Newcastle researcher.
"It's fascinating to see how strong the effects of environmental stimulation can be," Professor Nilsson said.
Professor Nilsson has played a significant role in a number of initiatives involving architects, neuroscientists, designers and psychologists who are working together to further understand the aspects of environmental stimulation and how to bring them to reality.
These studies observed various social contexts and environmental aspects of multi-sensory stimulation, such as light settings, geometry, colours, textures and landscape. Conversely, if you’re alone, inactive and living in an unstimulating environment it can set you on a negative path.
If you keep your brain healthy you maximise your opportunities for healthy ageingProfessor Michael Nilsson
Stress accelerates the ageing process
Professor Nilsson explains the concept of environmental stimulation as a myriad of factors that collectively stimulate the brain and in turn can reduce our stress levels.
“Stress is regarded as an important contributor to cognitive decline," Professor Nilsson said.
"One goal for everyone is to manage stress levels each day and work actively to do that."
Professor Nilsson believes the focus should be on prevention through being physically active on a regular basis.
“I’m not talking about going out and running marathons, just a brisk walk when you get your pulse up three times a week,” he said.
“This can be anything like working in the garden, walking or playing sport."
He recommends walking in green environments like parks or forests where you have strong visual stimulation, as past studies have shown that modern built-up environments can be partly responsible for stress and cognitive impact.
"There’s research that if you just pass by such monotonous environments you can become stressed, your blood pressure goes up and the heart rate increases.”
He said the opposite happens if you walk in green landscapes or around interesting buildings that encourages stimulation and helps you ease stress.
"Design, architecture and public urban environments don't necessarily have to be expensive to orchestrate,” he said.
“Other studies show it may be initially more expensive but it's paid off multiple times when you follow the consequences of these interventions.”
Professor Nilsson's involvement in various research programs have shown promising results for cognitive stimulation and neural repair through the use of therapeutic gardens, stimulating architecture, social interactions and intense physical activity, but more research is required to further validate the findings.
He said they will take the results further by bringing the ideas into prevention with a goal of stimulating health resilience, particularly for the elderly.
"We believe the same principles should be implemented into aged care facilities, residential spaces and home settings."
Everything can be organised like this in a retirement village to facilitate the holistic approach to your living in your older days.
Professor Nilsson said a lack of daily stimulation and social interaction can lead to depression, lethargy, and also trigger other psychiatric conditions.
Natural interventions the answer to our contentment
As we age our priorities and concerns change depending on our circumstances but regardless of what those are, we all seek contentment.
Professor Nilsson emphasises the importance of keeping the brain active in our later years as a means to maintaining mental wellbeing.
"If you keep your brain healthy you maximise your opportunities for healthy ageing," Professor Nilsson said.
"You should keep your brain active in different ways, as natural stimulation affects all of our senses like the way we feel, the way we see and the way we hear.”
Dance your heart out
"Social interaction combined with cognitive challenges is very important,” he said.
“A great example of that is dancing, which gives you social interaction, music, physical activity, and a little bit of emotion.
"It's very positive, it drives motivation, keeps your mood up and de-stresses you.
“I really favour dance for everyone but particularly for the older population."
Professor Nilsson advocates good cardiovascular health, like dance and regular social engagements in natural environments to improve your state of mind each day and help pave the way to a fulfilling and healthy life.
This article is sponsored by Aveo.