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Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Successful Agers: The 90+ Study

The NY Times recently published an excellent article about successful aging by Benedict Carey: Brain Power: At the Bridge Table, Clues to a Lucid Old Age. Together with Joshua Shenk's article about the Grant Study at Harvard in the Atlantic Monthly that I blogged about recently: Happiness & Our Relationships: The Grant Study at Harvard, we are given clear indications of some of the most important factors to bear in mind for a healthy aging process. One that both articles refers to is our social or relationship life.

Carey writes: "For all that scientists have studied it, the brain remains the most complex and mysterious human organ — and, now, the focus of billions of dollars’ worth of research to penetrate its secrets."

The world’s largest decades-long study of health and mental acuity in the elderly is located in Los Angeles. Begun by University of Southern California researchers in 1981 and called the 90+ Study, it has included more than 14,000 people aged 65 and older, and more than 1,000 aged 90 or older.

"In recent years scientists have become intensely interested in what could be called a super memory club — the fewer than one in 200 of us who [...] have lived past 90 without a trace of dementia. It is a group that, for the first time, is large enough to provide a glimpse into the lucid brain at the furthest reach of human life, and to help researchers tease apart what, exactly, is essential in preserving mental sharpness to the end."

“These are the most successful agers on earth, and they’re only just beginning to teach us what’s important, in their genes, in their routines, in their lives,” said Dr. Claudia Kawas, a neurologist at the University of California, Irvine. “We think, for example, that it’s very important to use your brain, to keep challenging your mind, but all mental activities may not be equal. We’re seeing some evidence that a social component may be crucial.”

"So far, scientists here have found little evidence that diet or exercise affects the risk of dementia in people over 90. But some researchers argue that mental engagement — doing crossword puzzles, reading books — may delay the arrival of symptoms. And social connections, including interaction with friends, may be very important, some suspect. In isolation, a healthy human mind can go blank and quickly become disoriented, psychologists have found."

“There is quite a bit of evidence now suggesting that the more people you have contact with, in your own home or outside, the better you do” mentally and physically, Dr. Kawas said. “Interacting with people regularly, even strangers, uses easily as much brain power as doing puzzles, and it wouldn’t surprise me if this is what it’s all about.”

Click here to read the entire (fascinating) article (and see a video with some members of the study) here

Earlier articles in this series from the NY Times are:

Photo: Río Negro, Bariloche Argentina

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