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New thoughts on aging, mental decline



Getting very old does not necessarily come with the absolute decline in mental and physical functioning that many people expect, new research shows.

A study of two groups of Danish people in their 90s finds that those born in 1915 not only lived longer than people born a decade earlier, they also scored significantly better on measures of cognitive ability and activities of daily living.

Even after adjusting for increases in education in a decade, people born in 1915 "still performed better in the cognitive measures, which suggests that changes in other factors such as nutrition, burden of infectious disease, work environment, intellectual stimulation and general living conditions also play an important part in the improvement of cognitive functioning," says the study, published online Wednesday in The Lancet.

Findings challenge speculation that living longer "is the result of the survival of very frail and disabled elderly people," says lead researcher Kaare Christensen of the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, director of the Danish Aging Research Center.

This is "impressive evidence that older today can be better than years past, especially in regards to brain health," says Sandra Bond Chapman, founder of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas-Dallas. She was not involved in the new study.

In 2010, she published research showing that doing challenging activities strengthens and preserves cognitive capacity as people age.

"Until recently, cognitive losses in aging were viewed as an inevitable consequence of living longer rather than a brain condition to be addressed," she says. The data "provide hard evidence to inspire hope and motivation for the global graying and aging of the brain in developed countries."

An accompanying editorial says the study offers "good news" that "age-related cognitive decline in very elderly people is malleable" and "might even suggest the possibility of lowering the incidence or delaying the onset of dementia."

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