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The news media is fond of depicting elderly Americans as balding men who are hard of hearing or bulky women who can't remember where they placed the car keys, but the realities of aging are far from these myths. Today, older Americans are healthier than ever before, and they are living longer and enjoying their retirement.

While science hasn't been too helpful in tackling the problem of hair loss, studies have revealed that the aging brain retains most of its mental ability. There are plenty of studies showing that men and women continue to flourish well into their 80s and 90s with relatively little loss in brain cells. In the past, researchers thought the loss of brain cells occurred every day. Now we know that although there is some loss with healthy aging, it is confined to specific areas of the brain, leaving other areas intact. Changes in the hippocampus may affect the rate of memory retrieval, but not the accuracy of information.

Economic analysts expected the graying of America to increase the number of Americans who were chronically ill or disabled. The reality is that medical scientists have improved treatment for chronic disease, so elderly people are living longer with less crippling disabilities. The National Long-Term Care Surveys, a federal survey of nearly 20,000 people age 65 and older, shows that every year a smaller percentage of people are unable to care for themselves. Disability rates have steadily decreased by 1 or 2 percent a year since 1982. During the same period, the percentage of elderly people with chronic diseases like high blood pressure, emphysema and arthritis has declined.

Why are Americans less frail and feeble? Treatment advancements in osteoporosis, heart disease and vision impairment are delaying or preventing the burdens of chronic disease that have afflicted former generations. Also, the educational level of elderly Americans is rising, and study after study indicates that a higher level of education is associated with better health. People with higher education generally have more access to health care. They are also more likely to adjust their diets or lifestyles to improve health, elect not to smoke and seek out treatments like hip or knee replacements that prevent disability.

Staying active, physically and socially, contributes to successful aging. Research established by the MacArthur Foundation Consortium on Successful Aging and conducted at several universities and hospitals found that people who entered their eighth decade healthy and independent shared several predictors for successful aging: regular physical activity, continued social connections, resiliency during the loss of relationships and a sense of self-efficacy. All of these factors helped older Americans maintain well-being through the normal stresses of life.

Other studies have found that cases of mental decline among the elderly are linked to less physical activity, but even these persons could minimize their decline by engaging in cognitive training or exercises, like chess or jigsaw puzzles.

By repeatedly testing healthy people over a number of years, researchers found that verbal intelligence may even increase with age. While certain aspects of intelligence, primarily the speed of information processing, did fall off with age, older people did as well as younger people on tests of cognitive ability.

An interesting study looking at the effects of increased exercise on cognitive function revealed that physical activity raises the level of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), a nerve growth factor that keeps neurons healthy. This increase in BDNF occurred not just in motor areas of the brain but in all areas involved in learning, memory and cognition. Education, too, may stimulate the neuronal pathways early in life and prompt people to remain cognitively active throughout life.

What does all of this mean to those of us who are approaching retirement? Leading an active life--exercising, socializing, reading, learning--is a prescription for successful aging. The message to young and old alike is stay active, interested and involved. Your continued good health depends on it.

--Dr. Sprinkle is a family physician with UC Davis Medical Group. For more information about healthy aging, plan to attend the Healthy Aging Summit, Oct. 15 & 16 at the Sacramento Convention Center. Check the Web site at: http:// healthyagingsummit.ucdavis.edu.


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