Health and Fitness Information for Mature Adults 

October 20, 2008

Table of Contents

  • Aging, Thinking, and Feelings (Introduction to special issue)
  • Searching for Brain Health (Improving cognitive function)
  • Chatting for Brain Health (More on exercising the mind)
  • Brain-Healthy Eating (Think fish)
  • Happiness (How does it evolve with age?)
  • Happiness Indicators (Thought for the day)

Aging, Thinking, and Feelings

For many of us as we grow older
, cognitive health is increasingly on our minds -- and any play on words contained in that statement is intended! In this issue of Experience! we will explore the findings of three research projects that suggest practical keys to preserving and improving brain function with age.

At the same time, emotions such as contentment and satisfaction with life are closely associated with overall mental health and psychological well-being. The author of the paper discussed in our article "Happiness" was quoted thus by Newswise, sourcing the University of Chicago News Office: "Understanding happiness is important to understanding quality of life."

Let's take a closer look at both of these related topics. 

Searching for Brain Health

It's been all over the television news reports:
Searching online may be healthful for one's brain, and that applies not only to the younger generation but to older adults as well. These findings spring from research led by Dr. Gary Small of UCLA, published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, and discussed in a recent issue of the Scientific American Mind.

The study involved 24 men and women ages 55 to 78 who were separated into two groups: (1) those with very little computer experience and (2) those with advanced Internet-searching skills. The subjects performed certain tasks while in an fMRI scanning machine, which detected their brain activity patterns. For example, one task was a simple reading exercise -- in other words, the participants read pages that were presented in typical book layout format. The results were predictable: Activation was observed in the areas of the brain that serve vision, language, and reading. All of the participants responded similarly, possibly because both groups were proficient, experienced readers.

However, when Web-searching tasks were introduced, uniformity between the two groups vanished. The participants were asked to conduct Web searches on topics such as choosing a suitable automobile or the potential benefits of drinking coffee. Of course, the same brain areas that are used for reading were again activated. In the technologically advanced group, there was also tremendous activation in the frontal brain regions that control higher order thinking such as complex reasoning and decision-making. Compared to the technologically inexperienced group, the computer "veterans" demonstrated more than double the level of brain activation while searching the Web on Google.

Researchers theorized that the dissimilarity between the groups might be due to the disparity in their familiarity with and understanding of the Internet-searching process. Indeed, given five days to practice and develop their Web-searching skills, the inexperienced group did begin to display increased activity in their frontal brain areas.

Dr. Small noted that the brain is extraordinarily plastic and it is never too late for it to learn new tasks, according to the UCLA publication the Daily Bruin. Quoted in AOL News, he encouraged older adults to learn how to use search engines, saying, "This could be exercising their brain and their neural circuitry in a way that's helpful."

Still, as reported by the Daily Bruin, Dr. Small stresses that people need to strike a healthy balance when it comes to their reliance on digital technology. While computer use can sharpen cognitive abilities, it should not be pursued at the expense of human interactions. The need to stay connected with humanity, including face-to-face contacts, cannot be replaced -- which leads to our next article.

Chatting for Brain Health

Here's an interesting scenario
which was described by the Pulse health and science news service: You bump into a neighbor while checking your mailbox and wind up "shooting the breeze" with him or her about nothing in particular for ten minutes. You just wasted ten minutes, right?

Wrong, according to research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. On the contrary, ten minutes of talking in person or on the telephone may improve memory and promote intellectual performance as much as working a crossword puzzle.

The investigation, headed by University of Michigan psychologist Oscar Ybarra, analyzed approximately 3,500 subjects ages 24 to 96. The researchers studied participants' social interactions and tested their working memories. The results: Regardless of their age, the more social contact participants maintained, the higher their level of mental functioning.

Brain-Healthy Eating

In another Pulse report,
the issue of "silent brain infarcts" was addressed. Silent brain infarcts are small lesions, or injuries, in brain tissue which can only be seen on scans. However, they have been connected to dementia and to a decline in thinking abilities. Researchers wanted to know whether eating fish, widely believed to be beneficial for the brain, might impact the development of such lesions.

A recent study published in the journal Neurology looked at more than 2,000 relatively healthy senior adults, most of whom were in their middle seventies. They underwent brain scans at the beginning of the research project and again after the passage of five years.

Participants who consumed either baked or broiled tuna (as well as other types of fish that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids) at least three times per week were found to be 26 percent less likely to have brain lesions, compared to persons who only ate such fish once per month or less frequently.

No benefit was associated with having fried fish. However, eating the right kind of fish -- properly prepared -- even just once per week was seen to decrease the risk for brain lesions by 13 percent.  


A major study completed at the University of Chicago
and published in the journal American Sociological Review has concluded that Americans grow happier with age, according to a recent release by Newswise. The journal article was authored by Yang Yang, assistant professor of sociology, and is entitled "Social Inequalities in Happiness in the United States, 1972-2004: An Age-Period-Cohort Analysis."

Heralded as one of the most thorough and painstaking evaluations of happiness in America, this study utilized data compiled since 1972 by the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center (which is supported by the National Science Foundation). The methodology, although implemented on a grand scale, was refreshingly straightforward. In live interviews, large samples of the population were asked:

"Taken all together, how would you say things are these days -- would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?"

Regarding racial groups, Yang found that among young adults the happiest are white women, followed in order by white men, African American women, and African American men. However, those discrepancies actually evaporate over the years as happiness increases.

One reason why people may become happier over time, according to Yang, is that aging is associated with greater maturity which, in turn, may improve one's sense of well-being. Another potential contributor, Yang explains, is that aging may also bring better access to health care through programs such as Medicare.

Interestingly, Yang's analysis indicated that "baby boomers" (the generation born from 1946-1964) ranked as the least happy among those surveyed. Quoted by Newswise, she says, "This is probably due to the fact that the generation as a group was so large, and their expectations were so great, that not everyone in the group could get what he or she wanted as they aged due to competition for opportunities. This could lead to disappointment that could undermine happiness."

Considering that the data spanned 33 years of history, it is not surprising that Yang detected upswings in happiness during periods characterized by widespread economic prosperity. For instance, she noted that the year 1995 was a very good one in terms of perceived personal happiness.

The excellent news coming out of this study is that happiness increases with age and that, in fact, our oldest citizens are the happiest Americans of all.

Happiness Indicators

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910)
was the American author, journalist, and humorist better known as "Mark Twain." His celebrated comment on one of the more obvious markers of aging seems exceptionally appropriate for this issue of Experience!

"Wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been."

                                      -- Mark Twain, Following the Equator

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