Research Results

Longitudinal studies—observe the same group of subjects over a long period of time, such as decades Cross-sectional studies—observe subjects of all ranges of ages, lifestyles, etc. at one particular time

Many longitudinal studies indicate that aging is not synonymous with the decline of mental abilities. Some tests indicate that older adults in their 70s take more time and are not as accurate as participants in their 20s or 30s. However, you must remember that these are generalities and hide the fact that the physical and mental abilities of individuals differ tremendously from person to person. Informally, you know this yourself—you have friends who are physically active, other friends who are very agile mentally, and some friends who are both.

You can learn a great deal from both types of studies. Generalizations from the results of these studies often have been published indicating that the older we get, the slower and more forgetful we get. Nevertheless, within the studies are individual differences:

• All people do not age physically and mentally at the same rate.

• Not all people get more forgetful with age.

• For individuals who are over the age of 50, some mental abilities remain constant, some decrease, and some increase.

• Older persons who keep active and stimulated may improve their scores on intelligence tests.

• Some studies indicate that there may be no decline in cognitive abilities.

The Berlin Aging Study, a study of 75- to 105-year-olds living in West Berlin, shows that some of those who were 85 to 105 years old showed higher levels of performance than individuals in the 70-to-84-year-old age group. In another study, Douglas Powell tested the math and reading-comprehension skills of more than 1,500 persons. The subjects ranged in age from 25 to 92 years old. He found that 25 percent to 33 percent of subjects in their 80s performed as well as the younger participants. Moreover, even the lowest scorers exhibited only small declines that did not interfere with daily living. Powell coined the term optimal agers to describe a small fraction of those in their 80s and 90s who exhibited exceptional scores, placing them near the top of mental abilities for all ages.

The MacArthur Studies of Successful Aging identified four traits common to those people who are most likely to remain mentally sharp and active. They

• Are better educated

• Are more physically active

• Have better lung capacity

• Possess higher self-efficacy

Many other longitudinal and cross-sectional studies have attempted to determine those characteristics that make some individuals optimal agers. Dr. K. Warner Schaie began the Seattle Longitudinal Study in 1956. Since that time, he has followed more than 5,000 people. Every seven years, he interviews and tests them to determine their progress and declines, if any. He has determined that various characteristics are associated with an individual's ability to maintain mental agility and alertness:

• An absence of cardiovascular and other diseases

• A high socioeconomic status

• Involvement in a complex and intellectually stimulating environment

• A flexible personality at midlife

• The high cognitive status of a spouse

• Maintenance of high levels of perceptual processing speed

This is a huge chapter. This, along with Chapter 7, "Enjoy Your Ageless Mental Agility," is one of the two big How-to-Fix-It chapters. You will learn how to use the information you acquired in the previous chapters to get your body ready to support an Agile Mind.

You will learn how to implement the changes necessary to build a brawny brain and understand precisely how these changes will support an agile brain. So while you are reading, notice which techniques you already use (and congratulate yourself), pick a few new ideas to incorporate, and above all else, keep learning! (You'll know why we said that later.)

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