From Dr. Jane's Notebook
Exploring the Secrets of Healthy Aging
Recently, I attended a conference titled, Aging of the Brain, Aging of the Mind featuring
the work of Dr. John P. Walsh from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
The topic of aging and mental health is becoming more and more popular as baby-boomers
approach and pass the 50 year old mark.
Over the next twenty years, the population of senior citizens will reach record high
levels, and include both baby-boomers and their elderly parents. As people increasingly
live longer, the quality of their lives will depend upon having both healthy bodies and
healthy minds. Here are a few ideas which were shared at the conference.
- We can now define successful brain aging. According to Walsh and his colleague,
Dr. David Morgan, "successful brain aging results in some loss of reaction time and
speed in responding to questions, but no major losses in the ability to learn, remember,
or perform routine mental tasks". The idea that our brains lose neurons with aging is
now known to be a myth.
- As we age, the way we learn changes. The term, fluid intelligence, refers
to the ability to absorb new information limited only by the mechanics of our central
nervous systems. In our youth, we are able to work harder. As we age, we develop what is
known as crystallized intelligence, which builds upon previous life experiences and
acquired wisdom. Crystallized intelligence allows us to work smarter! The point is that
our learning style changes but does not cease. In fact, the best way to maintain healthy
brain cells is to participate in a process of lifelong learning.
- Currently, there are two basic theories of aging. One theory suggests that the
aging process is genetically programmed and determined by a biological clock, most
likely located in the hypothalamus of the brain. According to this theory, aging is a
matter of time. A second theory maintains that aging is related to wear-and-tear,
such that ones physiology degenerates with damage to the body tissues. According to
this theory, aging is a matter of taking care of yourself, and durability may be related
to stress. However, it is likely that the process of aging is some combination of the two.
- How does stress affect the aging process? When an individual is faced with a
stressful situation, the body adapts by releasing stress hormones into the bloodstream.
These hormones make it possible for the individuals fight or flight
mechanisms to be activated. Physical changes enable the individual to respond quickly to
cope with emergencies, but this response is only adaptive for short-term use.
When stress hormones are activated on a permanent basis, other body systems suffer from
deterioration and become vulnerable to degenerative diseases. Since maintaining high
levels of stress is commonly a bad habit, we must learn how to reduce our stress
level in order to reduce the constant assault of stress hormones. Practicing various
relaxation techniques, such as meditation and resisting the urge to let little things
upset you, must become a regular part of life.
- What else can we do to protect our neural functioning as we age? Researchers
Walsh and Morgan also suggest that we protect our brains from the damaging environmental
contaminants, known as free radicals, which enter the body through the oxygen that we
breathe. While the cells in our body are designed to repair a certain amount of damage,
maintaining our health over longer lifetimes, will take additional efforts. These
researchers suggest that we learn more about the healthful benefits of antioxident
vitamins and other dietary supplements to help fight the effects of environmental
In summary, while we may not be able to override our genetic make-up, we can protect
our minds and bodies from some of the effects of wear-and-tear. Since 1900, the average
life span has increased by 28 years. So, if youre planning to live a long time,
there is much to learn about maintaining your mental and physical health. The good news is
that were learning more about aging gracefully; the other good news is that so long
as your mind is healthy, youll always be able to learn!
ęCopyright, 1998, 1999, Jane R. Rosen-Grandon. All rights reserved.
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Last Updated February 27, 1999 by Gary M. Grandon,