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50+: Live Better, Longer

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How to Grow Old Successfully

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"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.

"Fortunately, these vitamins and antioxidants are contained in a lot of foods," says Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, a professor of nutrition at Georgia State University and spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. "Folate is found in dried peas and beans, vitamin B-12 is found in meats and dairy products, and vitamin C is found in citrus fruits. Orange fruits and vegetables are good sources of beta-carotene, and vegetable oils are rich in vitamin E."

But, Rosenbloom warns,"prolonged exposure to air, heat, and water can deplete the nutritional value of vegetables. So just after chopping, they should be cooked for a short time in a small amount of water."

What are the experts' own favorite strategies for healthy aging?

"I don't adhere to a certain diet or deny myself of foods I enjoy, but I do eat a lot of bran, fruits, vegetables, chicken, and fish," says Jerry Clark, PhD, an 87-year-old member of the American Psychological Association's Council of Representatives. "And I usually steam fish and vegetables to avoid butter, margarine, and cooking oil. I also meet friends for breakfast on a reg ular basis to stay connected with others." Clark also tells WebMD that exercise helps him maintain a positive outlook.

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