Odyssey, the heroic traveler Odysseus survived a series of
challenges through either mental or physical prowess. Acrobatic
strength vanquished the Cyclops, but the key to breaching
the walls of Troy was a clever gambit—the Trojan horse—rather
than direct military assault. And of course, like any hero,
Odysseus met every obstacle that Homer threw at him with determination
and confidence rather than fear or despair.
Decades of research in gerontology, the study of aging, has
found that the qualities that allowed Odysseus to triumph
also promote general health and longevity. This counts not
just for living longer, but living better: avoiding chronic
preserving your memory and other mental skills, and functioning
independently in your daily life.
Healthy brain aging
In recent decades, scientists have radically redefined the
concept of “healthy brain aging.” The ruling paradigm
was once that living to a ripe old age was simply a matter
of avoiding chronic disease. As for the brain, it was assumed
that it would simply go along with the body for the ride—until
gradual, inevitable decay transformed us all into the stereotype
of the doddering, forgetful, senile elder.
There was just one problem with this: Many people make it
to 100 with their mental powers virtually intact, and lead
physically active, interesting, satisfying lives. How did
they manage to escape the “inevitable decline”
that defined old age in the popular imagination?
The Three Keys
Aging researchers found a way to ask the question. The tool
is called a longitudinal
aging study. Healthy people would be recruited in youth and
then tested periodically throughout life to measure any changes
in their physical and mental function as well as their lifestyles:
what they ate, how much they exercised, and their leisure
and social activities.
One of the most well known longitudinal studies, though not
the first, was the MacArthur Study. It tracked healthy people
from middle age into their 80s. As part of the project, MacArthur
researchers identified 1,200 healthy people between the ages
of 70 and 80 whose mental abilities ranked in the top third
compared to the general population in this age group. The
researchers tracked these high performers for a decade and
determined who among them tended to remain high-functioning.
They identified three factors that distinguished these people
from the others:
- They were more consistently physically active than the
others. They took daily walks and other forms of exercise,
- They remained mentally active. These are the people who,
rather than parking in front of the TV, did the crossword
puzzle every morning, browsed the library shelves regularly
for new and interesting books, dabbled in hobbies and crafts,
or played bridge three times per week.
- They had a personality quality some have termed “self-efficacy.”
They met challenges with the confidence and desire to solve
them, rather than being ground under the wheels of misfortune.
In short, they were like Odysseus. To their brains, they
Bulking Up Your Brain
From the MacArthur and other longitudinal studies has come
a guiding principle known as “use it or lose it.”
A recent brain-scanning
study appeared to show this principle in action. As reported
in the January 22, 2004 Nature, 23 healthy people, average
age 22, learned how to juggle. After three months, MRI
scans showed enlargement of the gray matter in their
brains—the part responsible for higher mental functions.
Either existing cells had grown denser, more numerous connections,
or the sheer number of brain cells had increased. When the
study participants stopped juggling, their brains shrunk again.
This doesn’t mean we should all juggle our way to cognitive
vitality. But it does strongly suggest that mental exercise
has real and positive effects on brain function.
Dancing Away Dementia?
Some researchers have wondered whether mental activity might
reduce the risk of Alzheimer's
disease. In a study in the June 19, 2003, New England
Journal of Medicine, researchers tracked 469 people aged 75
to 85 for up to 21 years. None had dementia
at the start. People who participated the most in leisure
activities—including reading, playing board games, playing
musical instruments, and dancing—were at 63 percent
lower risk of being diagnosed with dementia.
It may be that the active people built up a mental bank account
that helped delay the onset of dementia symptoms. “It
might provide some reserve,” explains Robert N. Butler,
M.D., president and CEO of the International Longevity Center
in New York City. “They’ve got enough there that
even though there is decay underneath, they are still able
to function pretty well.”
However, Dr. Butler, who in the 1950s led the first longitudinal
studies of healthy older people, is reluctant to promise that
a healthy-aging lifestyle can actually prevent Alzheimer’s.
“What I am reasonably sure of is that the various sorts
of apparent cognitive impairment in the later years, as well
as depression, are influenced by the level of mental activity.”
Fortunately, there are no known health risks to doing crossword
puzzles or reading novels. Even if lifelong mental “neurobics”
doesn’t prevent dementia, it may support general brain
function and enhance your overall quality of life.
Social And Physical Fitness
It should be emphasized that physical fitness is also associated
with lower risk of cognitive decline. Longitudinal studies
also suggest that remaining socially engaged aids healthy
aging. “Those individuals who had goals in life, something
to get up for, actually did better and lived longer,”
Butler, now in his 70s, ought to know. He has hardly slowed
the pace of his career since 1982, when he left his position
as the founding director of the National Institute on Aging
to found the first department of geriatric medicine in the
United States, at Mount Sinai
School of Medicine in New York City. Perhaps, like Odysseus,
we all need a quest in order to maintain our physical and
“Living To 100: Lessons In Living To Your Maximum
Potential At Any Age,” by Thomas T. Perls,
Margery Hutter Silver, and John F. Lauerman. (Basic Books:
1999. 282 pages, paperback.)
“Keep Your Brain Young,” by Guy
McKhann and Marilyn Albert. (John Wiley & Sons, Inc: 2002.
296 pages, paperback.)
“Successful Aging,” John W. Rowe
and Robert L. Kahn. (Dell Publishing: 1998. 265 pages, paperback.)
“Achieving And Maintaining Cognitive Vitality
With Aging,” by the International Longevity
center—USA, Canyon Ranch Health Resort, and the National
Institute On Aging. Download for free: www.ilcusa.org/pub/books.htm