Elderly can jog their way to mental fitness

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Science and technology conference told that 'superfit' 70-year- olds had levels of alertness equivalent to those 20 years younger

Jogging is better for the brain than doing crossword puzzles to keep people mentally alert in old age, a study of more than 6,500 elderly people has revealed.

Mental decline seems to be an inexorable accompaniment to ageing, the study found. There is no sign that people maintain their abilities only to suffer a sudden, severe drop in abilities just before they die.

Professor Pat Rabbitt, of Manchester University, has been studying mental deterioration with old age in two groups of people living in Manchester and Newcastle. The study found that a group of "superfit" 70-year-olds were just as mentally alert as those 20 years their junior.

Although it is possible to keep some abilities, such as doing crosswords, by regular practice, Professor Rabbitt told the British Association conference in Newcastle: "We have got some terrifying geriatrics", whose performance showed that "while jogging probably does all your brain good, doing crossword puzzles doesn't help with anything else".

"Just growing old has a more powerful impact on cognitive performance than any of the concomitants of ageing, such as ill-health or poverty," he said.

However, he said it was a myth that you got depressed as you aged, for his subjects were less depressed than the average population. "Ours is really a jolly group," he said, although he added that those in Newcastle tended to be more depressed than those in Manchester.

But other research has demonstrated that women face poverty in old age, because they do not have the same access to private pension schemes as men do. The Government's plans to raise women's state pension age to 65 from 2010 will exacerbate women's comparative disadvantage in old age, according to Professor Sara Arber, of the University of Surrey. "It's a pensions trap," she said. "Government policies will result in large numbers of older women in poverty."

Her research shows that the average income for older women is currently less than two-thirds that of older men. Because most women interrupt their working lives to have children, the few who do have their own private pension provision usually accumulate many fewer contribution years than men and have a lower final salary, Professor Arber said.

Women may do no more than lift themselves out of eligibility for income support. Although it is often argued that the majority of women are married and can therefore expect to share their husbands' pensions, most men die long before their spouses and "fewer than half of widowed women have a survivor's pension derived from their former husband's employment". It is only by adopting the male pattern of full-time, continuous employment, that most women can ensure an adequate pension.

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