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50+: Live Better, Longer

How to Grow Old Successfully

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"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.

"The mental decline we associate with aging isn't due to the death of nerve cells, but rather the connections between them," Katz says. "And using the senses in new ways helps maintain these connections. We call it neurobic exercise, and it's based on using different senses for routine activities, like finding keys in a drawer without looking. This puts brain circuits into high gear."

Katz tells WebMD that social interaction enhances neurobic exercise. "Research shows that being out in the world is like a gym for the brain," Katz says. "And social interaction is a big part of a brain-healthy lifestyle."

"Just as you need to keep your muscles toned, you need to keep your brain toned," says Gene D. Cohen, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Aging, Health, and Humanities at George Washington University in Washington. "If you stimulate your mind with reading, taking classes, and other activities, your brain continues to sprout new cells," says Cohen, author of The Creative Age.

In a study published this spring, researchers at Cornell University demonstrated that cells derived from an area of the human brain essential for learning and memory are capable of regeneration, at least in a laboratory dish. That came after a Princeton University study in monkeys provided the first evidence in mammals that the adult brain continues to make new versions of the nerve cells involved in higher functioning.

New research also points to the importance of a balanced diet.

In a recent study of older adults at Tufts University, men with normal blood levels of the vitamins folate and B-12 scored significantly higher on memory tests than men with low levels. Previous studies have linked vitamins C and E and beta-carotene with mental dexterity.

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