What to expect as you age, and how to fight back
KEEPING THE MIND SHARP
In terms of cognition, the good news is that people over 60 show an improvement in “world knowledge,” which includes vocabulary, creative thinking and problem solving, according to Molly Wagster, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Aging. That said, almost all of us will experience some age-related deterioration, says Wagster. “▸ven from our 20s through our 50s, we show steady decline in memory and learning,” she says. The difference lies in the degree of impairment, as well as how quickly it sets in.
The three areas most prone to deterioration are the ability to multitask, “attentional focus” (which affects short-term memory) and “word production,” which you might call “tip of the tongue syndrome.” This happens because, as we age, the insulation around our brain cells (neurons) wears down, affecting mental processing. It’s like when the plastic coating of a wire – or your cell phone charger – slowly becomes stripped, and it no longer makes a full, steady connection.
But there’s a lot we can do to fight back. A recent study found that just four factors – socialization, a healthy diet and both physical and brain exercise – can improve our mental skills as we age. ▸ven more important, research shows, is enjoying those things!
Social interaction is beneficial for emotional and cognitive function, and without it, people become isolated and depressed, conditions that are sadly epidemic among older adults. In one landmark study, older folks with the highest levels of social activity — from visiting friends to attending church to going to parties — showed significantly less cognitive decline than less active peers.
Wagster adds that “busyness” in and of itself is advantageous, as is mindfulness meditation and having a purpose, whether that’s being in a relationship, having something to look forward to or feeling needed. A great way to accomplish all three: volunteering.
The jury is out on games and puzzles – except in that they do improve one’s skills at those particular tasks. When it comes to the brain, many researchers subscribe to the “use or lose it” theory. “Any complex interpersonal exchange could promote or help maintain ef-
ficient neural networks,” says Bryan James, lead researcher on the socialization study. Some experts recommend using mnemonics, or systems for improving and assisting the memory, like making visual associations or word plays on names or places.
The primary difference between health care for people in their 60s and those in their 80s is the value of diagnostic testing, says Dr. David Chen, an internist at Aurora Health Care in Hartford. “If people get prostate screening, colonoscopies or mammograms in their 60s, they’re likely to live long enough to benefit from any necessary treatment,” he says. “But we wouldn’t want to put a 75-year-old through the trauma of surgery.”
A serious risk for seniors is osteoporosis, or loss of bone density, which is a leading cause of deadly falls (see sidebar, page 39). One in four women over 65 has the condition, but it often starts to become an issue decades earlier, as protective estrogen levels drop. In a perfect world, women would begin building up calcium stores in their 20s, but that doesn’t always happen.
Arthritis is also prevalent among older folks; in America, almost 55 million suffer from it. While some types are genetic and not easily prevented, the risk factors of other types are modifiable. Things that combat arthritis are good overall recommendations anyway: maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, doing appropriate exercises, not wearing high heels and following a diet that’s low in sugar and alcohol and high in foods that fight inflammation (see “Choose the Right Fuel,” page 38).
Age per se doesn’t raise the risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, certain cancers and diabetes, but poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle do. And the longer we live like that, the more likely our risk for chronic disease is to increase. Therefore, maintaining an optimal weight is just as important as you get older, says Chen. Unfortunately, he notes, Milwaukee has a very high rate of obesity. ▸xcess weight is a contributing factor to the more than 1 million hip and knee replacements performed in the United States every year, because every extra pound is the equivalent of an additional three to four pounds of stress on the knee.
Other things diminishing with age are hearing and vision. But because they can decline slowly and we naturally adapt, we don’t always realize how much we’ve lost, Chen says.
“People fear memory loss but don’t realize the connection between it and hearing loss,” he says.
Also, since risk for eye diseases such as glaucoma, macular degeneration and cataracts grows with age, Chen advises people to see their ophthalmologist and audiologist at least once every two years.
“People fear memory loss but don’t realize the connection between it and hearing loss.”