CHICAGO — How do we stay healthy and mobile into our senior years? How do we stave off dementia?
Exercise regularly. Stay mentally active. Nurture rich social connections. Find things you enjoy doing and people you enjoy doing them with, scientists said at the annual Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.
“We don’t know how to be old because old age is relatively young. It’s something new to us,” University of Illinois psychology professor Elizabeth Stine-Morrow told a crowd, many of them middle-aged scientists, at the Hyatt Regency for a program Sunday on “The Science of Resilient Aging.”
“A century ago, the average life span was 45 or 50 … and 4 to 5 percent of the population was over 65,” she said. “By 2050, it’s going to be over a fifth of the population.”
Experts say that by 2050, for the first time in history, the proportion of adults over age 60 is expected to match the number of people younger than 15, each group representing 21 percent of the population.
It’s called the Silver Tsunami. But, they emphasized, it’s never too early or too late to work on aging well.
Kirk Erickson, associate professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, studies the effects of exercise on aging. He offered promising news, especially for those who had visited the hotel’s fitness center that morning or chosen a cold walk over a cab ride to the hotel.
Exercise is good for your brain.
“We see changes in brain regions that typically show decline and deterioration later in life. The brain shrinks, unfortunately, as we get older,” Erickson said. “But research has proven that the brain remains highly modifiable into late adulthood. And exercise is one way to modify it.”
Erickson pointed to studies of people ages 59 to 81 who were all free of dementia. Those who exercised more frequently, who did something as simple as taking a brisk walk three times a week, had a larger hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory and spatial navigation, he said.
After a year of this exercise, they showed an actual increase in the size of the hippocampus. Greater hippocampus volume correlates with improvement in memory.
Scientists also addressed the need to stay mentally active. Symptoms of cognitive decline appear later in people with more “cognitive reserve,” said Yaakov Stern. A Columbia University professor of clinical neuropsychology, Stern was Skyped in to talk at the conference after being stuck home in the East Coast snowstorm.
The cognitive reserve theory aims to explain why some people with Alzheimer’s pathology maintain normal lives until they die, while others show the severe symptoms associated with the disease. Lifelong experiences, stimulating activities, education and midlife occupation, as well as leisure activities in later life, can help build this cognitive reserve to protect us, he said. And the earlier we start to build, the better. It is never too late to get going.
And when you start, it’s good advice to find others who enjoy starting with you, experts say.
Being alone is one thing. Being lonely is something else, said John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago who studies the biological effects of loneliness.
Studies have shown, he said, that socially isolated people have increased health risks and higher mortality.
Loneliness — perceived social isolation — doesn’t just make you less happy, he said. It makes you depressed.
“It isn’t just about being with others. The frequency of contact is unimportant,” Cacioppo said. “It’s what that person means to you that really matters.”
On the topic of social media, Cacioppo asked whether it’s a way to make friends or a substitute for connection.
“If you have no contact, then it’s better than nothing,” he said. “But it’s not a substitute for face-to-face contact.”