Given the growing and often contradictory media coverage regarding aging and Alzheimer’s Disease topics, you probably have a good number of questions you would like to see answered on Healthy Aging for Brain and Body.
Let’s address some of them in a lively Question & Answer format.
* Question: What is aging?
– Answer: Wikipedia says that “Ageing or aging (American English) is the accumulation of changes in an organism or object over time. Ageing in humans refers to a multidimensional process of physical, psychological, and social change. Some dimensions of ageing grow and expand over time, while others decline. Reaction time, for example, may slow with age, while knowledge of world events and wisdom may expand.”
Aging may not be the sexiest of words in our vocabulary. Unless, of course, you consider the most common alternative.
* Question: If the objective of anti-aging research is to extend lifespan, isn’t there a risk that we may neglect quality of life. After all, would people really like to spend more years afflicted by the diseases and the decline that often come with age?
– Answer: we have relatively good news to share. A recent study at University of Southern Denmark found that the proportion of elderly Danes who manage to remain independent holds steady at about 30-35 percent between the ages of 90 to 100. This means that from society’s point of view, exceptional long-life won’t lead to exceptional levels of disability. This pattern seems consistent across different lifespans.
* Question: OK, so at least it is not all doom and gloom. Now, can we really expect we will one day be able to extend not only mean but maximum lifespan?
– Answer: well, potentially yes, but first of all we need to better the genetic and environmental influences on aging.
* Question: Let’s now discuss the concept of “lifespan plasticity” and the status of the research today.
– Answer: Research on lab organisms such as yeast, worms and mice has encouraged the notion that lifespan is plastic-this is, it can be extended. Nature just published a great review of anti-aging science, combining cautious optimism with a call not to head down too quickly to the Natural medicine store for resveratrol in a pill, for example. Caloric-restriction, and some compounds, seem to influence pathways that regulate overall metabolism, and have an impact on lifespan. However, none of the drugs tested have shown lengthen life span in healthy rodents much less humans. we also don’t know whether inhibiting pro-aging pathways in humans will have the same effect that it has in lower organisms.
* Question: In short, there is much potential, but more research needs to be done. Now, does existing research support specific intervention to expand Healthspan (not just lifespan, but lifespan in a healthy condition).
– Answer: Exercise is an obvious first step. A number of studies have shown how consistent cardiovascular exercise can have modest effects on mean lifespan (usually in the 8-12%) and also help maintain functional ability, therefore contributing to longer healthspan.
* Question: We should also consider our Brain Healthspan. After all, “we” are a function of our brains. Anything we can do there?
– Answer: exercise helps there too, both by helping maintain cognitive function and by promoting neurogenesis and neuron survival. The brain reserve theory adds light on the importance of lifelong mental stimulation, but still need to better undertand the neurobiology of aging and cognitive decline.
* Question: Can food also play a role in maintaining brain health as we age?
– Answer: For a great in-depth review of the effects of food on the brain you can check out Fernando Gomez-Pinilla’s recent article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, discussing the respective merits of Omega-3 fatty acids, folic acid , flavonoids, antioxidant foods. Please note that most of the studies showing positive effects of these nutrients have been conducted in mice.
* Question: Let’s go back to the concept of expanding Healthspan. Are there public health implications?
– Answer: I’d say preventing falls among the elderly – falls are a leading cause of serious injury and death among the U.S. elderly. Juergen Bludau, chief geriatrician at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says the medical community needs to do a better job support quality of life, by which he meant two things: as much freedom from the ravages of disease as possible, and the retention of enough function for active engagement in the world.
In short, there is a lot of research under way on what interventions and lifestyles contribute to healthy aging.
The main recommendations today: ensure good nutrition, and follow a regime of frequent physical and mental exercise.