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50+: Live Better, Longer

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How to Stay Sharp in Old Age

People Who Maintain Mental Acuity in Their 70s and 80s Are More Likely to Exercise, Shun Smoking
By Caroline Wilbert
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 9, 2009 -- Want to stay mentally sharp well into old age? A new study has some advice for you: Exercise at least once a week, don’t smoke, and get a good education.

The research, published in Neurology, examined the characteristics of people who don’t lose cognitive function in their 70s and 80s. Although most research has concentrated on the many seniors who do lose cognitive ability, this study flip-flopped the typical approach and examined the traits of older people who don’t lose any mental sharpness.

The study looked at 2,509 people who participated in the Health, Aging and Body Composition study. Participants were recruited from Memphis, Tenn., and Pittsburgh. They were all between the ages of 70 and 79 at the start of the study in 1997, and all were in good health.

During the eight-year study period, 53% of the participants showed normal age-related cognitive decline and 16% showed major cognitive decline. However, 30% of the participants had no decline, including some people who improved on the tests.

People who exercised moderately to vigorously at least once a week were 31% more likely to maintain their cognitive function. People with at least a high school education were nearly three times as likely to stay sharp. Nonsmokers were nearly twice as likely to keep their mental edge.

“Some of these factors, such as exercise and smoking, are behaviors that people can change,” study author Alexandra Fiocco, of the University of California, San Francisco, says in a written statement. “Discovering factors associated with cognitive maintenance may be very useful in prevention strategies that guard against or slow the onset of dementia. These results will also help us understand the mechanisms that are involved in successful aging.”

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