Brains, Hearts and Chocolate – Age Well Project

The Age Well Project's Susan Saunders


My focus, both in my own life and in my coaching practice, is reducing dementia risk. Two major new research papers, from either side of the Atlantic, hone in on simple lifestyle factors which greatly increase or decrease our chance of Alzheimer’s and other dementias. One – published in the journal Neurology last week – looked at over half a million people recruited to the UK Biobank, and investigated the effects of mental and physical activity on dementia risk. They found that frequent exercise, mental activity such as adult education classes, regular housework plus visits to friends and family all reduced the risk of dementia. I loathe housework so I’m glad to have this motivation! None of this is new, of course, but if your health routines have slipped over the summer, take this as a gentle, new-season reminder of priorities.

The other report that caught my eye – from the USA this time – looked at the 12 known modifiable risk factors for dementia. These are: low education, hearing loss, traumatic brain injury, hypertension, excessive alcohol consumption, obesity, smoking, depression, social isolation, physical inactivity, diabetes, and air pollution. The researchers estimated that 41% of dementia cases are attributable to these factors. So almost half of cases could be related to issues either we as individuals, or society at large, can do something about. Although it’s more straightforward to quit smoking than tackle air quality, of course.


Finding ways to exercise is certainly do-able. The UK Biobank study found that regular, vigorous physical activity – like going to the gym or playing a sport – reduced the risk of dementia by 35%. A motivating figure. Another report, from China this time, linked leisure activities to reduced cognitive decline, finding that those which involved physical activity, sociability and mental stimulation came out on top. Which puts dancing at the top of the list – as Annabel has written about previously here.

If pulling on dancing shoes isn’t for you, another new study has linked a combination of aerobic exercise and strength training to lower mortality. Both forms of exercise are fantastic on their own but doing both has greater benefits. One of the authors of the study said that switching from a sedentary lifestyle to an active one is comparable to ‘smoking versus non smoking’. That’s pretty powerful.


We’ve made no secret of our struggles with sleep over the years, and it’s something we’re always working on. New research has linked poor sleep for women aged 40-64 with comfort eating and increased BMI. All very familiar, all very understandable. When we’re exhausted we’re much more likely to reach for a quick energy hit to keep us going. Another report has linked ‘optimal sleep’ with better cardiovascular health. ‘Optimal sleep’ was defined as 7-8 hours with early rising, little insomnia, sleep apnea or daytime tiredness. Annabel and I are both trying to tackle  sleep apnea with a product called Myotape – a kind of sticking plaster that goes round the mouth to keep it shut during the night and avoid mouth breathing. I can’t say I’ve really taken to it so far, but I’ll keep you posted on my progress.


We’re always thrilled to see new research that keeps chocolate on our age-well menus. New research has linked cacao to extended lifespan, in fruit flies, admittedly, but we share a remarkable amount of DNA with Drosophila melanogaster. So if chocolate’s good for them, I’m extrapolating that it’s good for me too! The research found that the fatty acids in cacao helped activate sirtuins, the ‘paramedics’ of our epigenome which race to the rescue when DNA is damaged. Another chocolate-themed research paper published this summer linked antioxidant flavonoids from cacao with reduced stiffness in the arteries and lower blood pressure. Keeping our arteries flexible is vital to keep blood pressure under control and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. I’ve listed some of our favourite chocolate recipes from the archives at the end of this post.


Over the summer, I was privileged to be interviewed for the Happy and Healthy in Midlife Summit by host Sherry Jibb. I joined a phenomenal line up of speakers, ranging from doctors to declutterers, all with an inspiringly positive message about midlife. My interview is all about ‘Your Big Beautiful Brain’ and doing the best for your cognitive health, but there are so many great topics. The summit is online, free, and goes live on September 8th. Sign up here for free access to all the interviews.

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