Photo from David Matos on Unsplash
By Theresa Reid
One of the many life experiences 30-year-olds share with older people is their fear that age will rob them of physical and cognitive health. In a large and rigorous nationwide survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago and West Health Institute a few years ago, 70% of people aged 30 and up said losing their memory and physical health were top worries about aging.
I am happy to report that for most of us, these fears are overblown.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. Several factors influencing the way we age are beyond our control: our experience in utero, our genetic inheritance, the health of the environment we inhabit, the quality of our early childhood education, and the stress we experience throughout life (including witnessing or experiencing maltreatment or systemic injustice) all affect how we age. These are hard facts.
Good brain news
Yet also true is that we have a lot of power to counterbalance negative influences and to increase positive development as we age. Let’s start with brain health, since the possibility of losing our memory (our “minds,” ourselves even) is the greatest fear for many people. So, the good news:
- Most supposedly age-related functional declines are the result of pathology. The large majority of us have healthy brains well into our 80s. Healthy older brains — which most of us have — are often as good as or better than younger brains in a wide variety of tasks.
- Healthy brains never stop developing and changing. They begin growing and making connections as an embryo and do so until the lip of the grave, continually resculpting themselves in response to experience.
- The aspects of brain function that do decline with age — for instance, raw speed on math problems, reaction times, and efficiency of short-term memory storage — are not the most important story about the aging brain.
- Among the most important positive changes as the brain ages is that it begins to use both hemispheres to solve increasingly complex problems, rather than relying on one or the other. This means greater flexibility and creativity in both everyday and more complex problem-solving.
- The brain’s emotional circuitry matures and becomes more balanced with age. PET scanning shows that as we age, we experience less intense negative emotions, pay less attention to negative than to positive emotional stimuli, and are less likely to remember negative than positive emotional materials.
- Most important: older brains have learned more than younger brains, especially material too complicated or subtle to learn quickly. This, and the use of both hemispheres, is a huge asset in complex problem-solving.
Good body news
We’ll look at a range of activities to boost our brain health as we age, right after we review the good news about the body. Bottom line: the physical decline usually attributed to age is primarily caused by inactivity.
New muscle mass can be created, and cardiovascular health improved, at any age. In fact, no matter what condition you’re in, no matter how old you are, aerobic activity and strength-building can slow, stop, and sometimes even reverse physical decline.
Staying active is better than medicine, by a long shot. Here are some of the benefits of increased cardio and strength training — again, at any age.
- Stronger bones and greater flexibility, reducing the risk of falls, breaks, and osteoporosis.
- Better respiratory and cardiovascular function, lowering the risk and (often) severity of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke, and strengthening immune response.
- Reduced dementia risk and generally — sometimes dramatically — improved cognitive function as a result of increased blood flow to the brain, stimulating neurochemicals that increase brain cell survival, neural plasticity, and development of new neurons.
- Higher metabolism, resulting in improved gastrointestinal function. (Toss the laxatives!)
- Improved mood and sleep, partly because of all the previously-listed effects, and directly because exercise produces endorphins, the “feel-good hormones.” (Toss the Tylenol PM ™!)
Cool! How do I get that?
So, great news! Not all, but a great deal of how healthfully we age is in our own hands. What can you do now — however many years of life experience you get to claim — to optimize your mental and physical health as you age?
- Exercise physically. I’ve just reviewed all the great benefits of strength training and cardiovascular exercise, so go do that!
- Eat right. We all know that diets high in saturated fat, sugar, and processed foods are bad for us, body and mind. A number of research studies* suggest that the Mediterranean diet — high in fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, olive oil, legumes, whole grains, and fish — might lower dementia risk by improving cardiovascular health**. (Important point: Wine is not off the table in the Mediterranean diet!)
- Establish strong social networks. Feeling part of a pro-social group has profound positive effects on mind, body, and brain at every age. Maintaining a social network can be harder later in life, as working relationships end, kids move out, friends and spouses move away or die, and other events beyond our control shift our position in the world. But continuing to forge new, meaningful social bonds — through volunteerism, joining interest groups, taking interesting opportunities to engage with others — is literally life-saving, and so worth every effort.
- Pick challenging leisure activities that exercise your mind. These need to be activities you love, not chores. Reading, dancing, board games, puzzles, musical instruments, language learning, teaching. Activities that make you work up a “mental sweat” push the continued creation and connection of neurons, shoring up your neural reserve.
- Achieve mastery. Pick one or more of your challenging activities and get really good at it. Mastery confers a sense of control that can boost immune system cells. So go for it: pursuing an interest casually beats vegetating, but pursuing mastery works wonders for your heart/mind.
- Meditate. Meditation is the ultimate exercise and balm for heart/mind. Meditation has long outgrown the woo-woo reputation it gained back in the 1960s and 1970s, with many peer-reviewed scientific studies showing the remarkable benefits of even a few weeks of practice. You can begin at any moment.
- Cultivate purpose. Without a strong sense of purpose, all of your other activities lack a “So what?” Our purpose — which evolves as we live and learn — is what gets us up in the morning. Time spent clarifying our purpose is repaid a thousand-fold.
To learn more, consider delving into these resources: The Mature Mind by Gene Cohen, MD, PhD; The Blue Zones, 2d edition, by Dan Buettner; and Legacies of the Heart, by Meg Newhouse. Not to plug my site, but to feed your heart/mind, there are lots more resources to be found at aginforlife.org.
The myth that aging predictably means decline in mental and physical function is pernicious, not least because it can become self-fulfilling. Yes, there’s plenty in life that’s out of our control. And yes — at the very end of life, we inevitably decline, hopefully quickly. (More on death later, which I feel better about the older I get, and the more I read.) But a great deal of the final third of life — say, from 60 to 90 and beyond — can absolutely be a time of continued growth and development. It’s never too late — or too early — to start laying the groundwork for a healthy, long, continually surprising life.
Theresa Reid, PhD, is Executive Producer and Host of Aging for Life, an emerging interview show about many aspects of aging, not including how to avoid it. She can be reached at email@example.com