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Watching football really can be good for your nerves

As England prepare to play their semi-final match against Croatia tonight and the nation holds its breath to see if football’s coming home, NHS England’s National Clinical Director for Dementia explains why the tension of the World Cup really can improve your mental health:

As the population ages and people live for longer, dementia has become one of the most important health and care issues facing the world.

In England it is estimated that around 676,000 people suffer from this illness. Dementia is an umbrella term with many different causes – Alzheimer’s disease is probably the most recognisable and best known.

With the World Cup upon us, there is an opportunity to consider the association between dementia and football – and what we can do to help improve older people’s mental health. As Alan Shearer demonstrated with his excellent documentary ‘Dementia, Football and Me’, sport can be good way to start conversations on difficult issues such as dementia and its impact on families.

Many older people still remember and relish the 1966 World Cup – Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst, Gordon Banks and the rest of the boys – and the potential to relive these halcyon memories this year should not be forgotten. Bringing back memories through sport is a well-recognised and legitimate reminiscence activity.

So as much as football fans may not feel it tonight, football really can be good for your nerves. It works in this way:

Briefly, we have two types of memory – emotional memory and autobiographical memory. The former is for how we feel, the latter for what we do. They are located in two different parts of the brain: the amygdala holds emotional memories and the hippocampus the memory for events.

Emotional memory is more powerful than autobiographical memory so the emotion one feels is held more firmly than the details of the event itself. Consider a car accident or even road rage you might have experienced: long after you have forgotten exactly where the incident took place, or the colour of the car, or who was in it, or the type of car, you will remember how you felt – vulnerable, hostile, angry.

That’s how memories work. For those who experienced it, they will not easily forget the flood of emotion when the final whistle went in the 1966 World Cup at the old Wembley and those immortal words were spoken by Kenneth Wolstenholme: –“They think it’s all over – it is now”.

Bringing back memories is a good thing as it can root people in the moment and connects them with their past.

Sporting memories have a key role in maintaining social contacts and that is one of the protective effects in dementia. Although not specific for dementia, sporting memories can have a positive effect in bringing people together and so have a beneficial effect on loneliness and isolation as well.

So, take the opportunity of the excitement of the World Cup to sit down with older people you know – share memories, rekindle moments in people’s lives and keep the brain active and the mind healthy.

Professor Alistair Burns

Alistair Burns is Professor of Old Age Psychiatry at The University of Manchester and an Honorary Consultant Old Age Psychiatrist in the Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust. He is the National Clinical Director for Dementia and Older People’s Mental Health at NHS England and NHS Improvement.

He graduated in medicine from Glasgow University in 1980, training in psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital and Institute of Psychiatry in London. He became the Foundation Chair of Old Age Psychiatry in The University of Manchester in 1992, where he has variously been Head of the Division of Psychiatry and a Vice Dean in the Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences, with responsibility for liaison within the NHS. He set up the Memory Clinic in Manchester and helped establish the old age liaison psychiatry service at Wythenshawe Hospital. He is a Past President of the International Psychogeriatric Association.

He was Editor of the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry for twenty years, (retiring in 2017) and is on the Editorial Boards of the British Journal of Psychiatry and International Psychogeriatrics. His research and clinical interests are in mental health problems of older people, particularly dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. He has published over 300 papers and 25 books.

He was made an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 2016, received the lifetime achievement award from their old age Faculty in 2015 and was awarded the CBE in 2016 for contributions to health and social care, in particular dementia.

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