Want to age well? Research suggests benefits to trying a new challenge

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 5 2013 2:17 p.m. MST

Shirley Joel edits video in her Manhattan apartment. The active 84-year-old learned to use Final Cut Pro editing software during her eighties.

Elizabeth Stuart

On a recent winter morning, sunlight spills over the paintings, books and mementos that fill Shirley Joel's New York apartment, where she sits editing video on her iMac computer. There's nothing remarkable about this scene — tens of thousands of people use Apple's Final Cut Pro software every day in America — except for one thing: Joel is 84 years old.

At an age when some of her peers adamantly resist the march of technology, Joel taught herself to use the software program so she could edit digital video.

Every week she produces and edits a television show about active aging for a neighborhood station, and that's what keeps Joel seated before the iMac for many hours each week.

"I don't have it 100 percent mastered, but I'm pretty good," she said. "My grandson is amazed."

Immersing herself in challenging projects ensures that Joel continues to exercise her brain, muscles and social skills during a life stage that sees many senior adults grow lonely and slip into mental and physical decline.

To those over 65, the mantra "Use it or lose it," applies, according to numerous studies. Gradual decline in overall health and cognitive function is inevitable with advancing age. However, seniors who challenge their brains, keep moving and maintain social connections reap benefits that go far beyond the enjoyment that comes from their active lifestyles

"We know that people who do these things tend to not experience rapid and severe declines in cognition as a general finding," said Kristi Williams, a professor of gerontological nursing at the University of Iowa.

Williams is co-author of a 2011 study that found cognitive and physical activity, social engagement and good nutrition had positive effects in maintaining memory and thinking ability for aging populations. The report concluded that medical guidance for older adults should be expanded to focus on preserving mental acuity as well as physical health and that senior adults should be encouraged to participate in activities that challenge their minds and keep them interacting with other people.

Embrace challenge

A born go-getter, Joel hasn't needed such counsel. Besides rearing three children with her husband, she pursued a career in advertising and retailing that included a stint as ad manager for Saks Fifth Avenue. Late in her career, she had to make the crossover from manual to computerized layout and design, as her whole industry did.

"I went enthusiastically," she said, with a zest that begins to seem typical as she talks about her television show, “Active Aging.”

“Our goal is to counter the image of aging and portray a vibrant approach to all aspects of living, whether you are retired or not,” Joel said about her show, which airs on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, a public access television station. “We show older people embracing new challenges and participating dynamically in all aspects of society.”

Joel's husband, one of the original photographers for "Life" magazine, died six years ago, and she lives alone in Midtown Manhattan. She's determined never to stop learning — the latest iteration of that is her new goal to learn the Spanish language. Attending live theater is another passion for Joel, but the television show is the one that really stretches her.

“Telling a story is extremely creative,” Joel says of her volunteer job. “I interview the person, then develop a narrative around that person. It’s very challenging and extraordinarily interesting. Editing at the computer is labor-intensive and requires a lot of patience. I will sometimes say to myself, ‘What am I doing, spending hours at the computer?’ ”

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