April 27, 2012 -- Newly minted octogenarian Burt Garrett says he doesn't actively work to keep his mind and memory sharp, but a new research review suggests that he's doing a lot of things right.
Days before his 80th birthday earlier this month, Garrett drove from his home outside Athens, Ga., to the Georgia coast, and then -- on a whim -- crossed the state into the Florida Panhandle to bicycle along the shore at St. George Island State Park.
The roughly 1,000 mile, three-day trip was not unusual for Garrett, who also plays golf, likes to hike, and says there aren't enough hours in the day to do the things he wants to do.
"I stay pretty busy," he tells WebMD. "Other than trying to stay in decent physical shape, I don't really work at it. Crossword puzzles frustrate me and I've never gotten into Sudoku."
People like Garrett who remain physically, socially, and mentally engaged as they grow older just may have found the secret to successful aging, according to the new review, published this week in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
Aging Brain: Use It or Lose It
Although some memory decline is inevitable with age, the research now shows this decline to be highly variable from person to person.
Imaging studies also confirm that the brains of older people with no evidence of memory loss more closely resemble those of much younger people than their memory-impaired contemporaries.
This suggests that avoiding the changes linked to memory decline, rather than trying to "fix" declines that already exist, may be the key to successful aging, the researchers write.
"There is quite solid evidence that staying physically and mentally active is a way toward brain maintenance," says researcher and Umea University professor of neuroscience Lars Nyberg.
This "use it or lose it" message is not new, but the review highlights a shift in thinking about brain health in the elderly, says Pepperdine University psychology professor Louis Cozolino, PhD, who in 2008 published the book, The Healthy Aging Brain: Sustaining Attachment, Attaining Wisdom.
"The brain is a very complex organ, with many different systems," he tells WebMD. "Some of these systems start to decline in the third or fourth decade of life and others actually function better with age."
Engage Socially and Physically
Although our genes certainly play a role in how our brains age, it is now clear that our social interactions do, too, especially new interactions, Cozolino says.
"Social relationships stimulate the neurochemistry of the brain to help it stay healthy," he says. "One formula for sustained brain health is continuing to engage in social adaptation."
On the other hand, social isolation can cause accelerated brain aging, he says.
"If you want your brain to deteriorate, just watch TV all day and don't do anything else."
Garrett, who almost never watches television, agrees.
"There are two kinds of people -- those who walk into a room and turn the television on and those who walk into a room and turn it off," he says. "I turn it off."
Though Garrett certainly has good genes -- his mother lived independently until two years before her death at age 96 -- his days also include lots of social interaction.
He celebrated his 80th birthday with his wife, BJ, along with his daughters, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and other members of his large, close family.