What a year! Roger with his trophies and medals from 2017. Picture: Contributed

What a year! Roger with his trophies and medals from 2017. Picture: Contributed - Credit: Archant

Recent US scientific research suggests challenging yourself throughout your life can help you live and feel like someone decades younger. It certainly seems to be working for Suffolk hockey player Roger Girling.

Superager Roger Girling.

Superager Roger Girling.

If your plan for retirement is to switch off, relax and take life easy, you may want to rethink it. In fact, you may want to do a good deal of thinking as a daily rule.

Recent studies in the US, at Massachusetts General hospital and Northeastern University in Boston, involved analysing MRI scans of people over 65 who have incredible memories for their age, better than many people in their 20s. Scientists call them “superagers”, a term first used by neurologist Marsel Mesulam at Northwestern University, in Chicago.

A common factor among this elite group was they all engaged in demanding mental as well as physical exercise, challenging themselves with new experiences.

So it seems a strenuous mental workout is good for the brain as you get older – and the key word is ‘strenuous’. If you think you are keeping sharp with daily Sudoku puzzles and gentle jogs you may have to up your game.

Hockey East won the over 65s trophy for the first time.
Roger Girling, from Ipswich, with the troph

Hockey East won the over 65s trophy for the first time. Roger Girling, from Ipswich, with the trophy - Credit: Archant

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Scientists believe these superagers, by getting outside of their comfort zone to learn new skills, are continually creating new neural pathways in their brains, countering those that are lost every day through the ageing process. They never allow themselves to get bored and take on new challenges, which they stick to, enjoying the momentary stress of the hard work. Studies also show that vigorous physical effort, again past the point of unpleasantness, may have similar effects on your brain.

One closer to home superager, although he claims ignorance of the term and modestly laughs away my suggestions he belongs in the group, is Roger Girling, from Ipswich.

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Roger, now 68, retired as a partner at East Anglian chartered accountancy firm Larking Gowen in 2012, but rattles off a list of commitments and hobbies there barely seems enough hours in the day for. “I have a busy diary,” he admits.

It is set to become even busier over the next few months as Roger has been named in the squad to represent England in the Grand Masters Hockey World Cup in Barcelona in June and the over-65s team are on a strict training regimen to peak for the event.

From left to right: England veteran hockey players, Terry Howlett, Roger Girling, Mike Surridge.

From left to right: England veteran hockey players, Terry Howlett, Roger Girling, Mike Surridge. Suffolk and Essex Over-70s Hockey World Gold medallists. - Credit: Archant/brammer

“I’m pleased, proud and privileged to be part of the team. It will be my last year for them as I’ll have to play for the over 70s next year. I’m one of the oldest in team – in what one of my teammates calls ‘the wilderness years’.” He may be one of the oldest in the team but he has a prestigious roll-call of achievements in the sport that suggest he may have been one of the first names on the team sheet.

Hockey has been Roger’s sport since school. A keen footballer as a child, he found the sport wasn’t an option at Northgate Grammar School, in Ipswich. It was either hockey or rugby. He chose the former and it began a love of the sport that has seen him play for the Ipswich Hockey Club for 52 years. He still plays for them in the club’s Fourth XI, among teammates some 50 years his junior.

Last year was especially successful for Roger, who was part of the winning team in the Grand Masters Hockey Asian Cup, which took place in Hiroshima, Japan), the England Hockey Over 65 Regional tournament and the Over 65’s European Cup, held in Glasgow. He is also captain of the Over-60s Suffolk hockey team, which recently beat its Norfolk equivalent 5-1 in the National Cup. “Always nice to beat the neighbours,” says Roger.

Playing hockey is a demanding sport, especially at a level when you are taking on the best in the world in your age group, and Roger works hard on his fitness.

“Fitness is something you have to keep working at,” he says. “With the World Cup coming up we’ve got until June to make sure we’re ready. It’s my first priority.”

Aside from regular training sessions with the team and scheduled warm-up matches, Roger puts plenty of variety into his fitness work. In true Superager fashion he seems to revel in trying new things.

He says: “I don’t like gyms, but I train at home and I often do interval training at the local park. I also attend the Diverse Dance Mix classes my daughter (Gemma, a ballroom and Latin dancer who has won national championships) runs at Gusford County Primary School on Monday evenings.”

Then there is the bowls, the golf, the gardening and even when he goes for a walk there is a challenge element to it. “With a friend of mine, Ian, I’ve walked the whole of the Norfolk and Suffolk coastline. We’ve got another walk planned for this year,” Roger says.

Fitness is so precious to Roger because he once came close to losing it.

“I had a triple heart bypass operation in 2006,” he says. “I don’t want to go back there. I see a duty of care to repay the medical staff that helped me by doing what I can to ensure I never go back.”

Aside from some “hamstring problems” a few years ago, Roger has kept himself in shape to compete at national level in hockey. The competition element is important. The father-of-two gives a lot of himself in trying to perform the best he can.

“If I don’t leave the pitch shattered I don’t feel I’ve done my bit,” he says. “That doesn’t matter whether it’s a club game or a European final.”

Returning to the Superager studies, it was found while the majority of people would sense the body’s fatigue as a sign to stop or slow down, |Superagers push past the discomfort. The will to win or succeed overrides the momentary stress.

This is what drives Roger on. “I’ve got a fairly competitive nature. I find it difficult to play and not to win.”

He will be playing to win the Grand Masters Hockey World Cup in June and the England team are in with a good chance.

“We’ve got a tremendous squad,” says Roger. “I would think we’ll be among the favourites.”

Maintaining that grit and desire to win, Roger is keen to point out, is as much about mental toughness as physical. The former accountant has done much to keep his mind sharp since retirement. He’s actively involved in freemasonry, giving him “the opportunity to meet people around the county”, is National Fixtures Secretary for the England Hockey Club and chairman of the Ipswich Rotary Club. All the roles, he says, “keep his brain ticking over”.

“It is important as you get older that you keep both physically and mentally fit.”

Whether Roger and the England team triumph in Barcelona triumph in Barcelona or not, one thing is for sure, the 68-year-old will relish the challenge - an important lesson to learn if we want to Superage our way through life. The desire to keep learning even extends to his holidays, in which he prefers exploring new places with his wife Hazel rather than lazing on the beach.

Tips to be a Superager

1. Take on some demanding mental activity on a regular basis, enough to make you feel unpleasant in the moment. Pick a topic that has always interested you, whether it’s history or origami or trampolining, and give yourself to ot until your brain hurts. Take classes that you find a challenge, or work on a project that’s difficult. Learn to play a musical instrument, or study a foreign language. If you fail at your task, that’s OK, just try something else. The key is to push past the discomfort that comes with learning a new subject or skill.

2. Start exercising regularly. Studies show that vigorous physical effort, again past the point of unpleasantness, may have similar effects on your brain as hard mental effort. In one study, people who exercised regularly in their 60s were more likely to be mentally fit in their 90s. (Of course, check with your GP before beginning any new programme of physical exercise, especially if you’re near or past retirement age.)

3. Eat healthy food and get enough sleep. Several studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet, rich in vegetables, fruits, fish and healthy fats like olive oil, is associated with better memory, less cognitive decline, and less brain atrophy in general. Sufficient sleep is known to be important for a healthy memory, and it even clears out certain “wastes” from your brain, known as beta-amyloid plaques, that are linked to dementia.

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