The young and old could learn a thing or two from each other, at least when it comes to mental health and cognition.
In a new study, published September 12, 2022 in Psychology and Aging, researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine found that healthy older adults show greater mental well-being but poorer cognitive performance than younger adults. The underlying neural mechanisms may inspire new interventions to promote healthy brain function.
The study sampled 62 healthy younger adults in their 20s and 54 healthy older adults above age 60. Researchers evaluated participants’ mental health, surveying symptoms of anxiety, depression, loneliness and overall mental well-being. Participants also performed several cognitively demanding tasks while their brain activity was measured using electroencephalography (EEG).
If you’re 45 years old, that means that you’ve completed 45 rotations around the sun. But, how old are you really?
Humanity has been interested in slowing the aging process and finding the “fountain of youth” since the dawn of time, but conversations about longevity are especially relevant as life expectancy in the U.S. has decreased by more than a year since 2020.
“Thanks to science, the mysteries of aging are now being revealed,” says Douglas E. Vaughan, MD, chair of Medicine and the Irving S. Cutter Professor of Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and co-director of Potocsnak Longevity Institute at Northwestern Medicine with Northwestern Medicine Infectious Disease Physician Frank J. Palella, MD. “The biology that drives the aging process is being demystified right in front of our eyes to the point that it’s conceivable to think about slowing the pace of aging, turning the clock back and altering the course of someone’s lifespan.”
Biological Versus Chronological Age
Chronological age is how long you have existed. Biological age is how old your cells are.
Sometimes these two numbers are the same for people, but everyone ages at different rates.
Your healthspan is the period of life where you are free of any aging-related disease. Dr. Vaughan and the Potocsnak Longevity Institute are aiming to increase the human healthspan by slowing down the aging process to push back the onset of aging-related diseases.
For many diseases, the most important risk factor is biological age, meaning that if your cells are older, they are more susceptible to a variety of diseases, such as:
“For most people, if you live long enough, you’re going to get an aging-related disease like high blood pressure,” says Dr. Vaughan. “There’s a quantifiable alteration and deterioration in function as you age.”
Aging on a Cellular Level
You can see some signs of aging with the naked eye — gray hair, wrinkles, limited mobility — but aging really happens on a cellular level.
As your cells age, they eventually enter a phase called senescence, when they lose their ability to regenerate and repair themselves. Environmental factors like stress, or genetic factors like family history can trigger senescence in your cells.
“In the last 20 years, we have unraveled the biology of senescence to the point where we are able to see a fingerprint of the molecular markers of biological age,” says Dr. Vaughan.
Chromosomes are structures that carry your DNA, which is the blueprint for your cells. Telomeres are groups of molecules called nucleotides on the ends of your chromosomes that act like bumpers, protecting your chromosomes from deterioration.
Every time your cells divide for normal repair and regeneration (which is all the time), your telomeres get shorter, which means they get shorter as you age. Research suggests that if you have shorter telomeres, you are more likely to die early or develop a disease like a neurodegenerative disorder.
In fact, there are people with short telomere syndromes (STS) who have genetic mutations that result in rapid aging due to short telomere lengths.
Humans have an estimated 30,000 genes, which carry the instructions for making proteins that make up your body and carry out all of its functions. Genes can be turned on or off like light switches. When your cells replicate and repair, a process called DNA methylation can occur. DNA methylation doesn’t alter or mutate your genes, but instead changes how you express your genes.
In short, DNA methylation can turn your genes on or off.
Examining DNA methylation is part of epigenetics, the study of how your genes are expressed based on your lifestyle and environment. This is important, because you don’t age in a vacuum. A variety of external factors contributes to how you age, including lifestyle, stress and even access to health care.
DNA methylation can also be a very precise predictor of your biological age.
“Someone who has diabetes will have a very different DNA methylation pattern than someone who doesn’t. Someone who smokes cigarettes will have a different DNA methylation pattern than someone who doesn’t,” says Dr. Vaughan. “DNA methylation can be reversed by lifestyle changes. You can alter your fate with diet and exercise, for example.”
Your actual age
Scientists may be able to measure your biological age in the not-so-distant future.
“We are not far away from having very precise measures that allow us to determine someone’s biological age,” says Dr. Vaughan. “We’re optimistic that we’ll soon be able to tinker with the biology of aging so that people can live longer healthspans.”
In a new paper, researchers challenge the longstanding view that the force of natural selection in humans must decline to zero once reproduction is complete. They assert that a long post-reproductive lifespan is not just due to recent advancements in health and medicine. The secret to our success? Our grandparents.
According to long-standing canon in evolutionary biology, natural selection is cruelly selfish, favoring traits that help promote reproductive success. This usually means that the so-called “force” of selection is well equipped to remove harmful mutations that appear during early life and throughout the reproductive years. However, by the age fertility ceases, the story goes that selection becomes blind to what happens to our bodies. After the age of menopause, our cells are more vulnerable to harmful mutations. In the vast majority of animals, this usually means that death follows shortly after fertility ends.
Which puts humans (and some species of whale) in a unique club: animals that continue to live long after their reproductive lives end. How is it that we can live decades in selection’s shadow?
Higher levels of optimism were associated with longer lifespan and living beyond age 90 in women across racial and ethnic groups in a study led by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“Although optimism itself may be affected by social structural factors, such as race and ethnicity, our research suggests that the benefits of optimism may hold across diverse groups,” said Hayami Koga, a PhD student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences studying in the Population Health Sciences program in partnership with Harvard Chan School and lead author of the study. “A lot of previous work has focused on deficits or risk factors that increase the risks for diseases and premature death. Our findings suggest that there’s value to focusing on positive psychological factors, like optimism, as possible new ways of promoting longevity and healthy aging across diverse groups.”
Older people who overestimate their health go to the doctor less often. This can have serious consequences for their health, for example, when illnesses are detected too late. By contrast, people who think they are sicker than they actually are visit the doctor more often. This is what a new study by Sonja Spitzer from the Institute for Demography at the University of Vienna and Mujaheed Shaikh from the Hertie School in Berlin found based on data from over 80,000 Europeans aged 50 and older. The results were published in The Journal of the Economics of Aging.
Our confidence affects our behavior. People who overestimate their abilities earn more, invest their money differently, and are more likely to be leaders. But they also act riskier, have more accidents, and live less healthy by drinking more alcohol, eating less healthily, and sleeping too little.
Millions of older people with poor vision are at risk of being misdiagnosed with mild cognitive impairments, according to a new study by the University of South Australia.
Cognitive tests that rely on vision-dependent tasks could be skewing results in up to a quarter of people aged over 50 who have undiagnosed visual problems such as cataracts or age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
Age-related macular degeneration is a leading cause of vision loss for older people. It doesn’t cause complete vision loss, but severely impacts people’s ability to read, drive, cook, and even recognise faces. It has no bearing on cognition.
Although all of us senior citizens have our ‘moments,’ recent studies have shown that we can retain our mental clarity by following some basic habits of good health.
Harvard Medical School lists a number of habits that can cut into our chances of suffering from dementia in our old age. They include staying physically active, getting enough sleep, not smoking, having good social connections, limiting alcohol to one drink a day, and eating a balanced diet low in saturated and trans fats.
In addition, they point out several health conditions that can impair cognitive skills, including diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, depression, hypothyroidism, and high LDL (bad) cholesterol. If you suffer from any of these, they recommend that you follow your doctor’s advice.
They list six strategies that Harvard offers to protect and sharpen our memory and our minds.
1. Keep learning According to experts challenging your brain with…
A study just released by Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health researchers is reporting a blood-DNA-methylation measure that is sensitive to variation in the pace of biological aging among individuals born the same year. The tool—DunedinPoAm—offers a unique measurement for intervention trials and natural experiment studies investigating how the rate of aging may be changed by behavioral or drug therapy, or by changes to the environment. Study findings are published online in the journal e-Life.
“The goal of our study was to distill a measurement of the rate of biological aging based on 12 years of follow-up on 18 different clinical tests into a blood test that can be administered at a single time point,” says lead author Daniel Belsky, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School and a researcher at the Butler Columbia Aging Center.
Healthy aging researchers at Flinders University say certain characteristics of mindfulness seem more strongly evident in older people compared to younger people – and suggest ways for all ages to benefit.
“This suggests that mindfulness may naturally develop with time and life experience,” says behavioral scientist Associate Professor Tim Windsor, who co-authored a recent study based on an online community survey of 623 participants aged between 18 and 86 years. Continue reading →
Life expectancy — the average number of years a newborn can expect to live — increased in the U.S. by almost 10 years between 1959 and 2016, from 69.9 years to 78.9 years. However, it declined for three consecutive years after 2014, driven largely by a higher mortality rate in middle-aged people of all racial groups.
In the NIA-supported study, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University analyzed data from the National Center for Health Statistics, the U.S. Mortality Database, and CDC Wonder. They found that from 1999 to 2010, the number of deaths per 100,000 people decreased for all age groups. This decline is attributable to reduced death rates from several specific causes, including heart attacks, motor vehicle injuries, HIV infection and cancer.
Declining mental sharpness “just comes with age,” right? Not so fast, say geriatrics researchers and clinicians gathered at a prestigious 2018 conference hosted by the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) with support from the National Institute on Aging (NIA).
In a report published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (JAGS), attendees of a conference for the NIA’s Grants for Early Medical/Surgical Specialists Transition into Aging Research (GEMSSTAR) program describe how increasing evidence shows age-related diseases–rather than age itself–may be the key cause of cognitive decline. And while old age remains a primary risk factor for cognitive impairment, researchers believe future research–and sustained funding–could illuminate more complex, nuanced connections between cognitive health, overall health, and how we approach age. Continue reading →
Blood pressure is like what Mark Twain said about the weather, “Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.” Well almost. I have found that blood pressure is one of those subjects that is widely and wildly misunderstood. I used to think it was like grey hair on old people. Everybody has it. I was dead wrong.
Few assumptions are more dangerous than this one: If you have high blood pressure, you know it.
Doctors refer to high blood pressure, or hypertension, as a silent killer because it rarely produces warning signs.
“When symptoms do occur, such as headache, nosebleeds or blurry vision, high blood pressure may have already reached severe and possibly life-threatening levels,” says Daniel Pohlman, MD, a primary care doctor at Rush University Medical Center. Continue reading →
I ran across this excellent discussion of senior cycling on RoadBikeRider.com. They have graciously permitted me to reprint it. See permission at end.
RBR Editor’s Note: Coach John Hughes copied me on a recent email exchange he had with Marty Hoganson, an RBR reader with whom he had ridden on tours in years gone by. Marty wondered what, if any, differences there are in terms of recovery, motivation, etc., between 50-somethings and 70-somethings. Both agreed to let me share the exchange with RBR readers. It provides a wealth of solid, useful information.
These days I live and ride in Yuma, Arizona. I am involved in our local bike club called Foothills Bicycle Club, which is primarily made up of retired folks – late-50s to mid-80s. Many strong riders in their 60s and 70s, for their ages — or any age, for that matter.
Asking your opinion on aging is not just an idle query. Does aging mean decline and disability to you? Or do you consider aging to be a time of opportunity and growth?
According to the Wall Street Journal, your attitude about aging plays a key role in how well you actually experience getting older.
“In test after test, researchers are finding that if we think about getting older in terms of decline or disability, our health likely will suffer. If, on the other hand, we see aging in terms of opportunity and growth, our bodies respond in kind,” Anne Tergesen wrote in the WSJ.
The good news is that there is a real physical and mental upside to aging with positive attitudes. On the other hand, negative stereotypes which are pervasive in America can do serious harm to all concerned. Continue reading →
I am fortunate to live in a big city and have lots of social outlets. For my senior readers, here are some suggestions from the National Institute on Aging for dealing with situations which are less hospitable.
This infographic says to get moving. I can’t stress enough how beneficial my daily bike riding is for me. I get out of the apartment and enjoy flying across the pavement. In the good weather I put my dog in the basket. But, I always bring my water bottle with the bluetooth speaker on top. I get to listen to my favorite songs from my iPhone the whole time, not to mention enjoying being out in nature. Don’t forget: the law of the body is – use it or lose it.
Eat less; move more; live longer. It works every time. Here is more good news. This time from a program specifically for very seniors – over 75s.
A program of personalized physical exercise implemented over a three-year period and involving 370 people over the age of 75 admitted to the Geriatric Service of the Hospital Complex of Navarre (CHN) has turned out to be “safe and effective” in reversing the functional deterioration associated with hospitalization to which patients in this age group are subjected. Other aspects such as cognitive status and life quality also benefited.
This is the conclusion of a research project coordinated by Nicolás Martínez-Velilla and Mikel Izquierdo-Redín, researchers at Navarrabiomed, the biomedical research centre of the Government of Navarre and the Public University of Navarre (NUP/UPNA); its results have just been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA Internal Medicine).
These findings open up the possibility of medical hospitalization units changing their traditional paradigm to focus on functional status as a clinical sign that may be negatively affected by traditional hospitalization classically based on bed rest. Continue reading →