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Why Do Some Older Adults Have Youthful Brains?

The beginning of a new year is a time to think about the future, and perhaps think about healthy lifestyles and how to age well. One important issue to think about is: why do some older people have "young" minds while others do not? Can anything be done to improve our odds later in life of being a "superager" and having a youthful, sharp, clear mind?

Unfortunately, as humans age, memory and many other cognitive functions often decline. “Normal” performance on various cognitive tests may be substantially lower than that of a younger adult, but... there is substantial variation in the degree of cognitive decline with age. Some older adults—referred to by some as “superagers”—continue to perform mentally at a level similar to middle-aged adults and sometimes even young adults.

Earlier posts have examined some of the things that help people age well and keep their brains more "youthful" - from diet (herehere, and here), to daily coffee consumption, vitamin D levels (here and here), regular physical activity and exercise (herehere, and here), not living in polluted areas (here and here), civic engagement, higher education, learning new skills, doing arts or crafts, and using a computer (here). Also frequently mentioned are social activities, intellectual stimulation, and genetics.

One recent study (discussed below) found that doing something hard and really challenging (that means forget pleasant puzzles), something that tires you out (whether physically or mentally) is what is good for the brain. So go out and learn a new language or musical instrument, sign up for a course, or anything else that is really challenging - whether physical or mental. Excerpts from a piece written by Lisa F. Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, from the NY Times:

How to Become a ‘Superager’

Think about the people in your life who are 65 or older. Some of them are experiencing the usual mental difficulties of old age, like forgetfulness or a dwindling attention span. Yet others somehow manage to remain mentally sharp....Why do some older people remain mentally nimble while others decline?Superagers” (a term coined by the neurologist Marsel Mesulam) are those whose memory and attention isn’t merely above average for their age, but is actually on par with healthy, active 25-year-olds. My colleagues and I at Massachusetts General Hospital recently studied superagers to understand what made them tick.

Our lab used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan and compare the brains of 17 superagers with those of other people of similar age. We succeeded in identifying a set of brain regions that distinguished the two groups. These regions were thinner for regular agers, a result of age-related atrophy, but in superagers they were indistinguishable from those of young adults, seemingly untouched by the ravages of time...... The thicker these regions of cortex are, the better a person’s performance on tests of memory and attention, such as memorizing a list of nouns and recalling it 20 minutes later.

Of course, the big question is: How do you become a superager? Which activities, if any, will increase your chances of remaining mentally sharp into old age? We’re still studying this question, but our best answer at the moment is: work hard at something. Many labs have observed that these critical brain regions increase in activity when people perform difficult tasks, whether the effort is physical or mental. You can therefore help keep these regions thick and healthy through vigorous exercise and bouts of strenuous mental effort. My father-in-law, for example, swims every day and plays tournament bridge.

The road to superaging is difficult, though, because these brain regions have another intriguing property: When they increase in activity, you tend to feel pretty bad — tired, stymied, frustrated. Think about the last time you grappled with a math problem or pushed yourself to your physical limits. Hard work makes you feel bad in the moment. The Marine Corps has a motto that embodies this principle: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” That is, the discomfort of exertion means you’re building muscle and discipline. Superagers are like Marines: They excel at pushing past the temporary unpleasantness of intense effort. Studies suggest that the result is a more youthful brain that helps maintain a sharper memory and a greater ability to pay attention.

This means that pleasant puzzles like Sudoku are not enough to provide the benefits of superaging. Neither are the popular diversions of various “brain game” websites. You must expend enough effort that you feel some “yuck.” Do it till it hurts, and then a bit more.

In the United States, we are obsessed with happiness. But as people get older, research shows, they cultivate happiness by avoiding unpleasant situations. This is sometimes a good idea, as when you avoid a rude neighbor. But if people consistently sidestep the discomfort of mental effort or physical exertion, this restraint can be detrimental to the brain. All brain tissue gets thinner from disuse. If you don’t use it, you lose it. So, make a New Year’s resolution to take up a challenging activity. Learn a foreign language. Take an online college course. Master a musical instrument. Work that brain. Make it a year to remember. [Original study]

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