Volunteers, magic mushrooms, tai chi and Vit B

Read on for updates on how life after work­ing life is get­ting fuller and busier;
the power­ful prop­er­ties of mush­rooms; thumbs up for tai chi after stroke;
latest research on vit­am­ins and demen­tia

Retired? No, busy work­ing for good causes

Virginia Low at the London Olympic stadium
One in five retired people have turned them­selves into ‘port­fo­lio volun­teers’, tak­ing on reg­u­lar duties for two or more char­it­ies, accord­ing to a sur­vey from the Royal Voluntary Service. The RVS ques­tioned a ran­dom sample of over-​60s about their life­styles. The res­ults, scaled up, sug­gest that two-​and-​a-​quarter mil­lion over-​60s in the UK are busy work­ing for free for good causes.

Why do they do it? For four out of five, it’s about sup­port­ing a cause they believe in. Two out of five are fol­low­ing a fam­ily tra­di­tion of sup­port­ing a par­tic­u­lar organ­isa­tion. Nearly a half of the volun­teers say they “need to feel they have a pur­pose”. And 15 per cent were keen to learn new skills.

The RVS says pre­vi­ous research it has done has found that older people who volun­teer are less depressed, have a bet­ter qual­ity of life and are hap­pier with their lives.

The UK-​based organ­isa­tion, which has war-​time ori­gins and recently changed its name from the ‘Women’s Royal Voluntary Service’, runs a ‘Diamond Champion Award’, to identify and cel­eb­rate the con­tri­bu­tion of older volun­teers who go the extra mile to help oth­ers.

Read Virginia Low’s blog: ‘Champion older people for the good of all’

Mushroom magic

Exposing mush­rooms to sun­light before cook­ing and eat­ing them can turn them into a power­ful source of Vitamin D. Vit D, often called the ‘sun­shine vit­amin’, is known for being vital for strong bones, and in recent years a raft of research has sug­ges­ted it also works to pro­tect us against many more health issues includ­ing demen­tia, dia­betes, heart dis­ease and muscle weak­ness. But as the nick­name implies, we rely mainly on the sun to deliver Vitamin D to us via ultra-​violet rays passing through our skin. Sun-​screen, dark skin and older skin all reduce the amount that gets through. So do low light levels: in the UK and north­ern lat­it­ude coun­tries it is now thought that we absorb very little use­ful Vit D from October to May, because of our cli­mate and lack of strong sun­shine.

The mush­room rev­el­a­tion is a real bonus for any­one whose med­ical con­di­tion pre­vents them from expos­ing their skin to sun­light (lupus, ongo­ing can­cer chemo treat­ment etc); for veget­ari­ans who can­not eat fish to top up their Vit D; and for every­one who loves mush­rooms!

I have not been able to verify the min­imum sun-​bathing time needed, but you should get bene­fits from turn­ing the mush­rooms upwards (gills to the sun), unwrapped, for 30–60 minutes out­doors in dir­ect sun­light, before cook­ing them. It seems but­ton, shii­take and oyster mush­rooms all work well. (The stalks do not cre­ate extra Vit D, just the mush­rooms.). A hand­ful of sun­bathed mush­rooms should provide as much Vit D as a daily pill (though if you are on a sup­ple­ment because you are Vit D defi­cient, you should cer­tainly stay on it, just use the mush­rooms as a tasty top-​up).

Of course, just like us, the mush­rooms have to have a good dose of sun to be able to ramp up their Vit D levels, so don’t go leav­ing them out on a cold grey mid­winter morn­ing. But you cer­tainly can plan ahead: both the mush­rooms and our bod­ies are pretty good at hanging on to the vit­amin once we have it. The human body stores its Vit D in fat tis­sues for sev­eral weeks. The mush­rooms, dried and care­fully stored, will retain their Vit D for months.

If you want more info and advice on sun-​bathing and dry­ing mush­rooms for a winter-​long store of Vit D, try this web page at fungi​.com

Find the tech­nical details of the most recent research here

Tai chi helps pre­vent falls after stroke

A US study has found that tai chi is far more effect­ive than an altern­at­ive exer­cise pro­gramme or ‘usual care’ at cut­ting falls among people who’ve pre­vi­ously had strokes. Stroke sur­viv­ors, accord­ing to the study’s research­ers, fall seven times as much as healthy adults. The study involved 89 stroke sur­viv­ors (aver­age age 70 and aver­age time since stroke 3 years) being assigned to tai chi, ‘sil­ver sneak­ers exer­cise’ or ‘usual care’. The exer­cise groups did their one-​hour workouts three times a week for 12 weeks. By the end of the study, there had been 34 falls among the volun­teers: 15 in the usual care group, 14 in the ‘sil­ver sneak­ers’ group and 5 in the tai chi group.

Tai chi is often recom­men­ded for older people at increased risk of fall­ing, but there is less evid­ence for its effic­acy among those who already fall over a lot, so this study is par­tic­u­larly inter­est­ing. Read the full report from the American Stroke Association

Vitamin boost for Alzheimer’s

Large doses of B vit­am­ins may in future be the best way to keep Alzheimer’s Disease at bay in people who already have symp­toms of mild cog­nit­ive impair­ment (MCI). An Oxford University research team stud­ied 200 eld­erly people with memory loss and other mild cog­nit­ive prob­lems, and found that large doses of three B vit­am­ins – folic acid, B6 and B12 – had a dra­matic effect in pro­tect­ing against brain shrink­age in key areas linked to the devel­op­ment of Alzheimer’s.

Researchers already knew that B vit­am­ins work to reduce blood levels of an amino acid, homo­cysteine, which is con­sidered a risk factor for demen­tia. But the new research sug­gests the bene­fits extend to the brain itself.

More research is needed and it should be noted that the large vit­amin doses used are not avail­able in nor­mal Vitamin B sup­ple­ments at the moment. But any­one who fears they have sig­ni­fic­ant memory lapses or other cog­ni­tion prob­lems may want to con­sider top­ping up their B vit­am­ins, espe­cially B12, and, per­haps more import­antly, check with their GP via a simple blood test, whether they have high homo­cysteine levels.

Read New Scientist art­icle here

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