How to Become a Superager – Comments on an Article in the New York Times

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Can we fight off the typical mental deterioration of aging?

A recently published article discussing the idea of being able to fight off the typical mental deterioration of aging, caught our eye.  We will discuss the concepts presented in the article, and those behaviors that we have observed in our patients that keep them youthful and engaged.

We all know older people who have lost mental quickness if not mental acuity. They forget where they put their keys or forget to turn off the coffee pot on the stove. They struggle to remember words that are just on the tip of their tongue and they seem unable to stay focused. Their attention wanders or declines. Many of us also know older people who are quick as a fox. They solve the NY Times cross word puzzle in half an hour, they can do math problems and recall historical facts along with all kinds of data they are interested in. They know sports teams, scores, politicians and history. They remain interested and involved in life. We all want to be them, as we grow old.

This article challenges us to wonder what makes the difference. Is it just genetics or is it something to do with the way our brains are wired? Could it be the way we live our lives and train our minds to work? Can we exercise control over aging in a way that  would enable us to avoid or eliminate the illnesses of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease?

There is an interesting discussion of what is called the triune brain. This “picture” of the brain suggests a structure we all learned about in school so many years ago. It is no longer thought to be accurate but many of us cling to it as our way of understanding how the brain works. This theory believes that through evolution we developed a brain of three layers, the old alligator brain the mid brain and the cognitive cortex where all of our thinking happens. This theory contends that the larger your brain and the more wrinkled your cognitive cortex, the smarter you are.

This theory is no longer mainstream thinking. Now neuroscience tells us that we have adaptive and evolving brain capacities throughout our history as a species. What seems to make a difference in how well our brain works is the ways we use our brain to assimilate and process data and experiences. I find this encouraging to those of us who exercise our brains daily and depend on that fact like an athlete would depend on weight lifting! The brain is an ever-evolving organ like our skin and bones, and it builds and destroys brain cells every day. The idea that we are born with all the brain cells we will ever have and our brains shrink over time.  I am thankful that the triune brain theory have been discarded and that exercising our brain can help to keep us active in our lives as we age.

Now back to Superagers. In the NY Tines article, the primary contention of this article is that we lose ability to think because we become mentally lazy and that leads to mental process deterioration. I agree that we must stay engaged in mental pursuits that require effort and work. Those people that were studied and determined to be Super Agers, all had done this type of activity throughout their lives.  They argue is that this exercise  can be mental or physical, but that we must follow the old Marine corps adage: Pain is  weakness leaving the body. We must work to the point of fatigue and immediate negative feelings, like soreness or exhaustion of body or brain or both to stay cognitively healthy.

The author Lisa Feldman professor at Northeastern University contends that as we age we begin to take the easy way out. We do what requires less effort and what we enjoy more. I think that is not all bad as some of  us make a habit of pushing too hard, but she says that the easy way out  is a mistake and that if we want to be among those elderly who are quick, capable, and mentally alive we need to push ourselves and work hard at something mental or physical. We must invest our attention and our lives in  something that challenges us and makes us work to obtain it. Life without effort and taking the easy way out is a mistake. So get off our mental duffs and go to work!

This Health cast was written and presented by Dr. Kathy Maupin, M.D., Bio-identical Hormone Replacement Expert and Author, with Brett Newcomb, MA., LPC., Family Counselor, Presenter and author.

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