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 Minds And Bodies Decline At Different Rates During Aging, Study Says

Better rethink those Google glasses for Grandpa. Although the current aging population shows greater cognitive and physical health than previous generations, it is true only up to point—technological gadgets such as smart devices with touch screens and Internet connections may have sharpened seniors’ minds but they might also have contributed to a more sedentary lifestyle and a risk for physical decline, reports a new study in PLoS One.
Aging is more than reaching a number—it also involves body and mind. For decades researchers have been under the impression that these aspects of aging move in the same direction. Those who are more physically fit are more mentally acute, and vice versa. But the current findings are more complicated.
“To say that today’s seniors are smarter but extremely physically unfit is overinterpreting these findings,” says Nadia Steiber, PhD, study author and assistant professor of the Department of Economic Sociology at the University of Vienna in Austria. “A diverging trend in cognitive and physical health is found for the young-old aged below 65. In the old-old (80+), there is in fact an indication of a positive trend in both cognitive and physical fitness.”
So how do these findings jive with the whole “60 is the new 40” results of prior research suggesting that seniors are healthier and sharper than ever? Some studies have shown seniors are doing a better job of keeping up their cognitive capacity and possibly face a lower risk of dementia, while other studies indicate that seniors have more chronic diseases and severe disabilities.
In her own words, Steiber concludes, “Functional decline is age-associated, not age-determined, and there is evidence that aging processes can be delayed if older people keep on doing physical exercise and continue challenging their brains. If they stop doing one or the other, functioning in one domain (for example, physical fitness) may decline faster than in others (cognition).”
She also notes that technology is a double-edged sword. It can foster sedentary behavior that may threaten both physical health and cognition, since physical activity plays a role in cognitive health. Yet it can also serve a protective role by providing mental stimulation for those who are physically constrained or increasing the mobility of those with infirmities.
Jackie Oberst is Provider’s managing editor. Email her at Follow the magazine on Twitter @ProviderMag and @ProviderMyers.
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