How to Grow Old Successfully
June 23, 2000 -- What if you found the fountain of youth, but were too old
to remember what to do with it?
It's an old joke, but the issue of age-related memory loss is a timely one
for scientists. With people living longer than ever before -- there are already
70,000 people over 100 years old in the U.S., and the Census Bureau predicts a
12-fold increase in their numbers by 2050 -- researchers are turning their
attention to how we can maintain our mental faculties into ripe old age.
The key factors emerging paint a clear picture: social interaction, physical
activity, mental stimulation, and a balanced diet can all help stave off mental
decline. What's more, the same strategies that help older adults enjoy a high
quality of life help younger people enjoy lifelong health and vitality.
"Many of the infirmities we associate with old age have more to do with
lifestyle than aging," says John Cavenaugh, PhD, a researcher on aging and
provost at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. "People in their
40s and 50s shouldn't dread birthdays anymore. Today, older people travel
extensively and are sexually and politically active. They're truly enjoying
their retirement. So whether we're 25, 55, or 85, it's a great time to begin
making healthy choices."
One easy choice is to keep up your social ties. Researchers at Harvard have
found that, compared to people with five or more social ties, people over 65
with no social ties have a higher risk of cognitive decline. A study of more
than 12,000 people 75 and older in Sweden found those with few close social
ties had a 60% higher risk of developing dementia. And research published in
the British Medical Journal showed that elderly people who played cards,
went to movies, and participated in other social activities lived longer than
their more reclusive counterparts.
We all know that regular physical activity can prevent heart disease and
certain cancers and helps us live longer, but it also may help keep our
memories functioning. A study published last year in the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences indicates that, in mice, exercise improves
learning and memory and stimulates the growth of new brain cells.
"Physically active people are more likely to maintain sharp mental
ability, physical health, and a positive outlook," says Robert Kahn, PhD,
an 81-year-old professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Michigan
and co-author of Successful Aging. "Weight training helps even the
frail elderly increase muscle strength and balance. And lifting just a few
pounds, on a regular basis, helps reduce the incidence of falls."
Lawrence Katz, PhD, a professor of neurobiology at Duke University and
co-author of Keep Your Brain Alive, advocates more than just physical
activity. He says you have to exercise your brain.