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May 19, 2015

Keys to Successful Aging

Keyboard-621830_640Like many New Yorkers in my generation, I’ve “grown up” reading Jane Brody’s Personal Health column in The New York Times.  So it’s no surprise to me that some of the most useful information I may come across about navigating the sometimes confusing paths of aging successfully comes from her suggestions.

For example, her recent column “As We Age, Keys to Remembering Where the Keys Are” provides some important guidelines on distinguishing common age-related cognitive decline and pathological symptoms of cognitive impairment.  Quoting AARP, she notes that “forgetting where you parked your car can happen to everyone occasionally, but forgetting what your car looks like may be cause for concern.”

She cites recommendations from the Institute of Medicine that increase chances of staying cognitively sound:

First, be physically responsible.  Any question about the consequences of physical deterioration on mental function has long been resolved—it does!  Physical responsibility includes, of course, being physically active.  No surprise there—we’ve been advocating regular exercise as a key part of any prescription for aging successfully.  It also makes getting the regular seven hours of sleep easier, which is also important.  And so is monitoring and moderating intake—moderate alcohol, low amounts of fat, sugar and cholesterol, etc.  All of this will help prevent and control cardiovascular risk factors—i.e., those risks that can precipitate dramatic cognitive decline through strokes and such.

But it’s equally important to treat the mind well.  If, due to depression, the mind isn’t treating you well, address it, get treated.  Continue to learn—reading, taking courses, learning new tasks that are rewarding and meaningful.  There’s lots of truth to “use it or lose it “ on the mental front as well as on the physical.  In another column, “For an Aging Brain, Looking for Ways to Keep Memory Sharp,” Ms. Brody touts the beneficial effect of certain training programs and computer games on improving cognitive skills in older people.  To be clear, she also cautions that many other pills, potions, and programs haven’t demonstrated any real benefit—all are not created equal—and provides suggestions for how to discern between the two:

“The Institute of Medicine has cautioned consumers to beware of phony or poorly tested products that claim to ‘prevent, slow or reverse the effects of cognitive aging.’ Consumers should ask: Was the product shown to improve ‘performance on real-world tasks?’ Are the claims supported by ‘high-quality research’ that has been ‘independently verified’?’ And, most important, how do the supposed benefits compare with those from actions like physical activity and social and intellectual engagement?”

As that quote’s last sentence suggests, staying engaged in social interactions—the “rewarding relationships and activities” we cite in our definition of Successful Aging—in and of themselves are valuable means to keep cognitive decline at bay. 

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