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

Published: Sunday, Feb. 3 2013 10:05 p.m. MST

Producing her show keeps Joel out in her community. She likes living in a city that has good public transportation and recommends it. Walking to and from the subway as she goes about her activities is good exercise, a key factor in maintaining cognitive function in senior adults.

Keep moving

As the demographic profile of the United States continues to go gray, optimizing life during retirement years will become increasingly important. The oldest members of the American "baby boomer" generation, born between 1946 and 1964, will turn 67 in 2013. That means the coming two decades will see the ranks of U.S. senior citizendom swell dramatically as more and more boomers turn 65.

Those aging boomers would do well to stay active. A 2011 Japanese study showed that mice that exercise daily had higher levels of glycogen — “brain fuel” — in their brains’ cortex and hippocampus, the areas responsible for learning and forming memories.

It appears those results are not permanent, however. Like muscle growth, the brain benefits of exercise disappear if exercise is discontinued, according to another study that compared the mice who exercised regularly, then stopped, with sedentary mice.

The 2012 study at Brazil’s University of Sao Paolo found that after the first week of inactivity, the previously active mice were much faster than the sedentary mice at remembering locations in a maze and had twice as many newborn neurons in their brains. After six weeks of inactivity, though, the mice that previously exercised showed about the same memory ability and neuron profile as the sedentary mice. The cognitive gains from exercise had been lost.

Williams advises that senior adults continue physical activities to the degree their health will allow, suggesting walking and swimming. Continuing scholarly work and reading will stimulate cognition, and staying involved socially with family, friends and community is important to optimal aging, she said.

Attitude counts

Sixty-seven-year-old David Glover feared aging, fought it, and finally embraced the wonder of living a long life. Glover, a career musician from Oakland, Calif., wrote a 90-minute one-man show about graceful aging, "Old Happens," which he performs from memory at senior facilities, churches and theaters. After performances, audience members stay behind to thank him for helping them see aging in a new light, and to share their stories.

"If you live, you're going to get old," Glover said. "You can't stop it. But I'm doing something to celebrate life in the second half. It's not something we are good at.

For Glover, things got better when he decided to accept the aging process instead of railing against it.

“I think God put us here to age and grow old, and I thank God I’m getting old,” he said. “Young was fun, but I’m old now. Let me enjoy my old years, just like I did the young years.”

Glover enjoyed theater throughout his life, but didn’t find time to indulge his interest until he got older. His positive attitude toward aging, and his ability to “play” at something he always wanted to do might reap hidden rewards.

A 2006 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry showed that the ability to “play” — enjoy family, hobbies and community activities — outweighs financial security and good health as a predictor of satisfaction during retirement for men. And a 2004 study at the University of Texas found that people with a positive attitude showed fewer signs of frailty as they aged than pessimistic people did.

Glover believes the baby boom generation will tackle senior adulthood with gusto.

"These are people who came out of a radical background," he said. "They've been fighters through the ’60s, and they are going to be more relentless."

Among all those feisty boomers are millions of people who will live longer — though not necessarily healthier — than previous generations of Americans did. U.S. life expectancy was 78.5 years in 2009, according to the United Health Foundation's 2012 America's Health Rankings. That's 1.7 years above the level in 2000. The extra years come at a price.

"Because Americans are living longer, we're seeing more problems with cognitive changes in advanced age," Williams said. "After age 85, almost one in two people have some kind of cognitive decline issue."

So why not take steps to avoid those declines by taking a word of advice from Shirley Joel?

“You find a passion,” she said, “maybe one you haven’t been able to develop. You tap different resources maybe you weren’t aware of. One really has to be willing to adventure, be flexible and try new things.”

Joel said she has never forgotten words uttered by one of her interview subjects, a woman who retired from life as a reporter for NBC, then joined the Peace Corps at age 63:

“Retiring? You retire a boat. You retire a debt. You don’t retire a person.”

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