Conquering mind over matter as you age.
Illustration by Leslie Lammle
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It seems medical and science researchers are always trying to figure out how to improve the human species—and with good cause: We’re hanging around a lot longer these days. But while 50 might be the new 30, there’s still those 20 years of wear and tear to account for.
Until recently, expert advice has centered on staying active, eating well and avoiding anything that could cause cancer. Now there’s also an increased focus on cognitive well-being and extending “brainspan.” Chances are you’ve heard about mental fitness and its potential impact on age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
A recent study by the National Institute on Aging determined that by 2040, 84 million people worldwide will likely suffer from age-related mental decline. Even now, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s is alarming. According to Kathryn Jedrziewski, deputy director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Pennsylvania, 40 to 50 percent of seniors over 85 will get dementia by 2040. “People used to die before they were old enough to get dementia,” says Jedrziewski, adding that as we live longer, brain maintenance is a growing concern.
The brain ages at different speeds, but memory and reasoning typically begin to decline at around 60. The areas most affected are brain processing speed and accuracy; problem solving; and focus, attention and memory. “As we age, our brain’s speed of cognition slows down,” says Jason Karlawish, associate director of Penn’s Memory Center. “We take longer to organize facts and code them into our memory.”
Luckily, evidence suggests that by reducing stress and challenging the brain through memory exercises, cognitive impairments don’t have to be inevitable. Even in old age, the human brain can rewire itself. While severe cases of mental decline such as Alzheimer’s are typically caused by disease, most age-related brain deficiencies are the result of inactivity and a lack of mental exercise and stimulation. In fact, the Alzheimer’s Association identifies the four major components to staying healthy later in life as mental stimulation, physical activity, social connectedness and a healthful diet.
A National Institute of Aging study found that over a period of five years, brief sessions of brain exercise could have a long-lasting, positive impact on seniors’ mental fitness. Training and assessments were done in the areas of processing, memory and reasoning, with participants attending hour-long classes and using the computer. Even simple tasks such as organizing grocery lists into categories and identifying flashing objects on a computer were found to stimulate the brain and help raise test scores throughout the five-year study period.
Despite the findings, local experts caution against getting carried away with a strict regime of brain teasers and memory exercises. “There’s a lot of talk, but more scientific studies—real clinical trials—need to happen before we can draw clear conclusions,” says Jedrziewski. “We can’t tell people, ‘Do this and you won’t have to worry about Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.’ But we can say that the earlier you start to make health-minded changes—whether it’s diet, exercise or brain training—the greater chance you’ll have of reaping the benefits.”
And results can vary drastically by individual. “A person of 70 can be similar to someone who’s 20,” says Karlawish. “Other factors come into play. The higher level of education you have, the lower the chance of developing a cognitive disease—but that’s associated with other socioeconomic sources and conditions.”