Gardening to Prevent Loneliness Ranks Among Tips for Better Aging

physical activity and social interaction conducive to brain health

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Singapore has recommended that seniors should consider gardening to prevent loneliness and depression, Reuters reported. In 2017, the number of people over age 60 who committed suicide reached an all-time high and officials worry the trend will continue. Staying active is vital to aging well.

Senior woman gardening alone
For seniors in Singapore, gardening fosters a sense of community and enjoyment and proves vital to aging well. Photo by Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

According to the Reuters piece, suicides among the elderly population have increased due to a lack of social connections, as well as the fear of burdening one’s family. “Since 2017, Singapore has rolled out an allotment garden scheme—a shared plot of land where people can farm—which it hopes will foster a love of gardening and closer social bonds,” the article said, adding that over 1,000 gardens have been planted, so far. Staying physically active not only improves the quality of life experienced by seniors, but it also aids in longevity—and scientific data backs it up.

Keeping a Happy, Healthy Mind as a Senior

Years ago, Harvard’s School of Public Health conducted a longitudinal study—that is, a study that uses the same group of subjects over a long period of time—of older nurses, which yielded fascinating results. “The researchers mailed questionnaires asking about walking and other physical activity to nearly 20,000 older nurses starting back in 1986,” said Dr. Thad Polk, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan. “Then they called up those same nurses 10 to 15 years later and asked them to perform some cognitive tests over the phone, and they found that the nurses who had been more physically active did better on the cognitive tests. The more active nurses also exhibited less of a drop-off in their cognitive performance as they got older.”

According to Dr. Polk, a similar longitudinal study was conducted in Canada that followed more than 4,000 people who had been tested as cognitively healthy five years earlier. “The most physically active people were about 40 percent less likely to have developed cognitive impairments compared with people who were not active,” he said. “Likewise, the most physically active people were about 50 percent less likely to have developed dementia of the Alzheimer’s type.”

Dr. Polk stressed that these studies also showed that the activities that kept happy, healthy brains in later periods of life weren’t limited to strenuous, vigorous exercise. Fortunately, low-level activities like walking 15 or more minutes a day helped as well.

The Science of Physical Activity and the Aging Brain

A year-long neurological study of two groups of seniors at the University of Illinois helped scientists understand exactly what physical activity does for the aging brain. “They randomly assigned 60 older people to one year of aerobic exercise and another 60 older people to one year of stretching and toning as a control condition,” Dr. Polk said. “The control group exhibited the normal age-related shrinkage in the hippocampus that we would normally expect in an older population.”

As for the aerobic group? “The volume of the hippocampus in the exercise group actually increased over the course of the year,” Dr. Polk said. “The people in the exercise group whose hippocampus grew the most also exhibited the largest improvements in memory.”

Finally, Dr. Polk mentioned that animal studies have shown that physical activity leads to an increase in blood vessels in the brain, higher levels of chemicals that cause physical brain growth, better resistance to brain damage, and improved learning and cognition. And for those not leaping at the chance to do aerobics, or whose circumstances hinder the ability to perform physical exercise, other studies have shown that developing a strong, positive social network reduces the chances of developing dementia by up to 60 percent compared to people with limited social interaction.

As we age, our bodies get tired from having worked so hard, day in and day out. It’s been understood for a long time that our eyesight worsens over the years simply due to the strain of using them during our waking hours. This change in eyesight can make it more difficult for seniors to venture out to the gym or exert themselves physically beyond typical day-to-day activities. However, the benefits of physical activity and social interaction seem pretty clear as positive results in terms of the aging brain. Living a happier, healthier, longer life may start by developing a green thumb.

Dr. Thad A. Polk contributed to this article. Dr. Polk is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan. He received a B.A. in Mathematics from the University of Virginia and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Computer Science and Psychology from Carnegie Mellon University.