What do you do?

Question: What do you do?

Tommy Thompson: Well there are certain things, you know, that I live by. I first believe that you are elected by the people, and that you elected by all the people even though they all didn’t vote for you; and that you represent all the people. So no matter if you were my biggest opponent or biggest enemy, if you had a problem I was . . . I felt I was responsible of helping you solve that problem. And secondly, answer every telephone.Third, answer every letter. And most individuals in elected office don’t do that anymore. These are the kind of things that I was really, really very much involved in. I wanted people to understand that I expected them to write, and they expected that if they write to me, they should have a response. And if they call me, they definitely need to hear back from me. And so I was very open and requested that. And I also believe very much that a legislator or a governor should spend his time out amongst the people. I always got my best ideas from people. And you know, I’d be talking to people and something would click. I’d hear a problem and see a problem and wanna do it.Fourth, I always felt, you know, that people that really didn’t have much deserved the most of my time and support. And so I loved going into areas where people were really hard up and needed a lot of help. And I felt, you know, I could really bring, you know, some happiness to them if I was able to do something for them. And these are the kind of basic principles I lived by when I was elected, and I did the same thing when I was State Legislator, and when I was Governor, and when I was Secretary. When I was state legislator, I went to every community every single year in my state assembly district and met with the people whenever they wanted to. My wife, of course, had difficulties with that in having a young family. But then when governor, I did something that no other governor ever did. And now most governors follow through on something I started. I moved the government out of Madison – which is the capital city – to college towns and set up my whole Cabinet in college dormitories every single year . . . probably twice a year. So I forced my Cabinet officials to live in college dorms for a week! And then we went around that particular area all over the state of Wisconsin. People loved it! The Cabinet officials at the beginning thought it was pretty hokey, but they learned to like it! And then we were able to have a bonding. And the Cabinet officials really learned a great deal from each other and learned how to work together. So they were a much more efficient, effective Cabinet for me and for the people of the state of Wisconsin. And we learned the problems all over the state just weren’t isolated to what was brought to us in Madison. We went out and found things. And the other thing is when I was Secretary I did the same thing at Health and Human Services. I went out, and there were several divisions in the Department of Health and Human Services. I went out into each division and ran that division as the Division Head for a week at a time in every division. And no Secretary has ever done that before. No Secretary has done that since. But it really got me a . . . a learning experience about what was happening. And it made me a better Governor and a better Secretary. And that’s what . . . something that I like to tell people because I brought an opportunity for people to become close to me and bring me their problems. Because I want people, when I’m out there, to come to me with their ideas, and how they figure they can help me do a better job of running that particular agency.

Recorded on: 7/6/07

 

 

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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.

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  • 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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