Search our Blog

Search our Blog

Friday, May 7, 2021

5 Tips to Keep Your Brain and Body Young

We share five secrets to keep your mind and body functioning at the level of someone decades younger.

Superagers are older adults who are as sharp and fit as people many years their junior. While heredity likely plays a role, there are several things any of us can do to extend our mental and physical health. These things are not easy, but that’s why they work. They challenge us to get out of our comfort zone and push our bodies and minds to accomplish more. 

Cognitive Superagers

Research shows that cognitive superagers embrace new mental challenges. In one study, 40 adults aged 60 to 80 and 41 others aged 18 to 35 were read a list of 16 nouns six times. Twenty minutes went by, and they were asked to remember as many of the nouns as they could. More than half of the older group could only remember nine or fewer nouns, but 17 seniors recalled 14 or more of the words, a score similar to the younger cohort. 

Afterward, the participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging. The seniors with normal memory showed thinning of some areas of the brain, indicating cell loss. But in the 17 participants who scored as well as the younger group, brain thickness was undiminished. Both sets of seniors had similar IQs and education. Research suggested that what made the difference was their approach to problem-solving. 

Dr. Bradford Dickerson, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, theorizes the better-performing group “may approach these tasks as a challenge they can succeed at, in contrast to typical older adults who may give up.” Dickerson’s fellow researcher, Dr. Lisa Barrett, suggests that superagers may be more willing to endure discomfort to get better at a new skill, such as learning to play a musical instrument or speak a new language. 

Physical Superagers

Those who rival younger counterparts on a physical plane have high aerobic capacity, which is the amount of oxygen a person can take in and distribute to tissues in one minute, or VO2 max. Normally, people lose about a tenth of this capacity every decade after age 30. "Some studies have indicated that people in their 80s who exercised at high intensity for 20 to 45 minutes a day have an aerobic capacity of people 30 years younger," says Dr. J. Andrew Taylor, director of the Cardiovascular Research Laboratory at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Network.

People who elevate the intensity, duration and frequency of their workouts improve VO2 max. The 14th National Senior Games had 4,200 participants who had qualified in regional trials. Their average chronological age was 68, but when they used a calculator to estimate their biological age, it came up with 43 — more than two decades younger!

If you’d like to push yourself to become a superager, or just more mentally and physically fit, here are five things you can do:

  1. Stay positive. From the time we are young, we are learning stereotypes about aging. As we become seniors these are having a negative effect on our health, according to Elissa Epel of the Aging, Metabolism and Emotions Center at the University of California San Francisco. Stress accompanied by a negative mindset can cause cell damage that accelerates the aging process. 
  2. Make and keep friends. Friendships keep loneliness and isolation at bay, whether you enjoy a wide array of acquaintances or just a few close relationships. “Individuals who are free of dementia, free of cognitive problems, and really thriving in their community as well” have “stronger positive relationships with others,” according to Emily Rogalski of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
  3. Take your exercise up a notch. Unless you are in phenomenal shape, you can benefit by ratcheting up the intensity, duration and frequency of your workouts. What workouts, you say? Start with a walk around the block and build up from there. Everyone is starting from a different point; the goal is to eventually sweat and breathe heavily for 20 to 40 minutes, several days a week. Something is always better than nothing. Research by Money Talks News shows that aerobic exercise and resistance training improve brain function regardless of how often you do them, and obesity has the opposite outcome.
  4. Meditate. Telomeres, the caps of chromosomes, shorten as we age. When this shortening happens in midlife, it’s predictive of dementia, some cancers, early-onset heart disease, and other age-related diseases. Epel and her fellow researchers conducted research on more than two dozen people who they sent to a month-long intensive meditation retreat. The study showed that, “At the end of the retreat, the participants’ telomere length had increased significantly, and participants with the highest initial levels of anxiety and depression showed the most dramatic changes over the course of the study.”
  5. Learn a new skill. Commit to a new hobby, learn a new language or take an online class, the more difficult the better. In fact, try your hand at computer gaming; research shows it’s good for you! Reading and writing are associated with memory preservation, and so are solving word and number puzzles. If you normally go for word puzzles, try sudoku. The reverse is true, too. Push yourself to go out of your comfort zone.

“As we get older, when we see declines in memory and other skills, people tend to think that’s part of normal aging,” says a researcher in the UCSF blog post. “It’s not. It doesn’t have to be that way.”