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50+: Live Better, Longer

How to Grow Old Successfully

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WebMD Health News

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.

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