What to ex­pect as you age, and how to fight back

Milwaukee Health - - NUTRITION ALCOHOL -


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.”

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