Stressing about aging damages your brain, shortens your life

Dementia, disrespect, and loneliness – that is not your future, says aging expert Ashton Applewhite.

ASHTON APPLEWHITE: When I started thinking about this, almost all my associations with aging were older, and where my fear was deepest had to do with cognition. Dementia is a terrifying disease, and we are nowhere near a cure. I think what people forget is that it is in no way typical of aging. The statistics, the latest statistics from the Alzheimer's Association and this statistic has dropped significantly just in the 10 years I've been studying this it is that one out of 10 of the entire 65-plus population does come down with Alzheimer's. The older you are, the more likely you are to get it age is the biggest risk factor so the percentage increases as you get older. But very, very few people my age, 66, have Alzheimer's. The point being, it is not typical of aging. And, telling both sides of the story here, Alzheimer's rates continue to decline. We're not sure why, but the odds of anyone listening to this coming down with Alzheimer's have gotten lower and lower. And people are getting diagnosed at later ages. So let's tell both sides of the story.

As we age, most of us do experience some decline in specific cognitive functioning, like the ability to remember the name of that movie you saw with what's-her-name last week. But one thing I'm always pointing out to people is that younger people forget stuff too, all the time. This is not just an old-age affliction. Where ageism comes in is that when you can't remember the name of the movie, and you're my age, you think, oh, crap, that means I'm getting dementia. Which it might, but it really, really, really probably does not. It is true that older people can take longer to come to a conclusion about something, or perhaps remember something. But one reason this is so, and interestingly, this came out a study done by data scientists in Germany, who weren't even studying anything aging related, is that as we grow older, we acquire more experiences and memories. So literally, just like a processor, the brain has to sift through more information to get to an answer. And it is that process of sifting that enables us, often, older people, to come up with a more measured or deeper response. That's why it is so terrific to have mixed age teams. For many reasons that are intuitively obvious, younger people might come up with more answers more quickly, and possibly think of things that an older, more perhaps experienced person might think, oh, we tried that 10 years ago and it's not going to work. But if you pair the agility of a young mind with the experience and more seasoned approach of an older worker, you arrive at a synthesis that is the best possible thing. You can make an analogy in terms of physical activity as well. Older workers certainly physically move slower, no doubt about that. But they injure themselves less often.

A growing body of really, really interesting evidence shows how attitudes towards aging affect how our minds and bodies function at the cellular level. People with more positive attitudes towards aging, which I would say is simply more realistic attitudes towards aging, because most of us are so brainwashed to equate aging with decline, show that they walk faster, they have better handwriting, which is a pretty good indicator of general health. They heal faster, even from severe disability. They live longer, not just a little bit, an average of seven and a half years longer. And the latest research shows that positive attitudes towards aging confer protection against dementia, even in people genetically predisposed to the disease. The idea is that if you are not worrying about aging, if you are not under this stress of believing that everything is going to go to hell in a handbasket, and you are going to be conferred to the sort of dustbin of history, or abandoned by those you love, or abandoned by your brain, or deserted by your body, those are all sources of stress. They are messages that an ageist culture bombards us with on a daily basis, in the news, starting with children's books, all the way up. When we refute those messages, when we look at the purpose behind them, and look at the evidence all around us, at the lives that older people are living, it's very easy to see the alternate truthful reality. And that confers protection.

The earlier in life we become what I call an old person in training which is to acknowledge that, guess what, we're going to become old and it's probably going to be different than we think right now, and probably way better the better, because then we can see ageist messages in the culture more clearly and refute them. If we look around at the older people around us, it is obvious that the vast majority are living interesting lives and going about their daily lives with interest and purpose. I have never met anyone who actually wanted to be any younger, no matter how terrified they were of getting older. So think about that, right? Because even if we are brainwashed by an ageist culture, we know that our years are what make us us.

  • The best anti-aging advice? Stop stereotyping old people! Cultural messaging about the pitfalls of old age causes undue stress that prematurely ages the brain and shortens life spans.
  • People who have a positive outlook on aging can live 7.5 years longer than those who buy into cultural stereotypes about getting old.
  • It's important to look at the positives of aging, not just the risk factors: Alzheimer's rates are declining, 'mental sifting' can make us wiser, and older workers injure themselves less often than younger workers.

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Impossible Foods
Politics & Current Affairs
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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

Mind & Brain
  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.


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