April 18, 2011

USA: Optimal Cognitive Aging: Who Remains Mentally Sharp?

NEW YORK / Psychology Today / Blogs / April 18, 2011

The Aging Intellect
Cognitive aging and how to manage it.

Optimal agers challenge themselves—bridge, chess, barbershop singing, juggling

Douglas Hyde Powell
Clinical Instructor in Psychology at
Harvard Medical School, and a
Consultant in Psychology at McLean Hospital.

About 25% of people over 60 meet the standards for optimal cognitive aging. This estimate comes from research carried out in the US and Europe. Who are these optimal agers and what lifestyle habits distinguish them from the majority of elders who are growing older nor­mally or are at risk for cognitive impairment?

But first let me tell you what I mean by optimal cognitive aging. Optimal cognitive agers avoid risky lifestyle habits that endanger their intellect and practice behaviors associated with maintaining or slowing the decline of mental skills. They are mentally vigorous and regularly focus their intellectual powers on activities that interest them. Optimal cognitive agers get most of what is possible for them whether their IQs are exceptional or average, whether they are physically able or disabled. While many are quite bright and accomplished, a number have had undistinguished academic records and worked at ordinary jobs.

Based on recent research reports by others and interviews by my students and me with over 150 aging women and men, we identified individuals that meet the criteria for three levels of intellectual functioning-optimal, normal and at-risk for cognitive impairment. We analyzed the differences in their behavior and lifestyle habits. In a nutshell here is what separates optimal cognitive agers from their peers.

Their most striking feature is a high energy and activity level-three to four times greater than those in the middle of the pack. As you might guess, they practice healthy routines such eating right and getting regular exercise. Another distinguishing feature of these optimal cognitive agers is that they are pro-active about medical checkups. They don't wait until they are symptomatic to schedule a physical exam. Those aging optimally also are compliant with medical advice. If they have high blood pressure they take their pills as directed.

An unanticipated finding was that appearance matters to optimal cognitive agers. These women and men were more often described as well-dressed, well-groomed and younger looking,

They are mentally vigorous too. Several challenged themselves by starting something they dreamed of doing since midlife- reading all of Shakespeare, taking piano lessons again after a 50 year hiatus or learning small engine repair.

Elderly men playing a form of chess in Beijing.
Illustrative photo courtesy:  http://drpinna.com/

Optimal agers also do things to keep mentally sharp. Dominique memorized the numbers on of her credit-card, Rich took up chess, and Bob taught himself to juggle three tennis balls. Others enroll in courses, travel, work at Sudoku or crossword puzzles, play bridge or mahjong. Even though empirical support that such pursuits help us to age well is currently lacking, engaging in these activities is enjoyable, stimulating, and is proof that we are still mentally active.

These empirical findings would not have been news to most of our grandparents. They knew that eating healthily, getting regular exercise, having people in our life we can count on, and keeping our stress level down is good for our health. And they would have a good idea that smoking and obesity were bad.

But they might have been surprised to hear that practicing healthy habits and avoiding risky behaviors also is linked to a slower rate of cognitive decline. And the might have been very interested in learning more about other kinds of activities that refreshes the intellect.

We found certain behavior patterns to be unique to optimal cognitive agers and the ways they differ from the majority of their contemporaries.

To know more about the characteristics of optimally aging older people and those elders in the normal and at-risk groups may find useful my new book, The Aging Intellect.

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