Why Do We Age Differently?

Nowadays, most of us live comfortably, with access to food, medication, and physical and psychological services. The advances in science and technology allow for efficient treatment and prevention of many diseases that once were deadly. Given all of that, it is not surprising that the average lifespan of individuals has increased significantly, resulting in a high percentage of elderly individuals in the general population.

Key takeaways:
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    Healthy aging is pathology-free aging.
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    Cognitive reserve theory proposes that the brain attempts to counter damages to balance out the loss by actively engaging in pre-existing cognitive processing approaches.
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    Factors like education, occupation, and lifestyle help determine high cognitive reserve, but those represent only correlational and not causal relationships.
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    Several factors can hurt cognitive reserve. Illegal substances and tobacco products have detrimental effects on overall health and decreased longevity.
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    When it comes to alcohol, light to moderate alcohol consumption does not seem to harm cognitive functioning. But elevated alcohol consumption has been linked with increased risk and earlier onset of dementia and poor cognitive functioning later in life.

What is healthy aging?

The World Health Organization predicts that by 2050, there will be approximately 2.1 billion individuals over 60 years. Currently, the number is around 1 billion. This increase has contributed to efforts in studying and understanding aging, along with preventive treatments. Healthy aging is a term used for pathology-free aging and should not be confused with lifestyle aging.

What is cognitive reserve?

Cognitive Reserve (CR) explains the individual differences observed in healthy and pathological aging. Simply put, it is a theory aiming to tackle questions such as: Why do some people maintain their cognitive functions, clarity of thought, and reasoning, whereas some encounter difficulties, sometimes to the point where full-time care is needed?

With pathological aging, such as Alzheimer’s Disease, a puzzling event occurs when patients have the same severity level of dementia but show different cognitive functioning capabilities.

The CR theory proposes that the brain attempts to counter damages to balance the loss by actively engaging in pre-existing cognitive processing approaches. It suggests that regardless of the neuronal tissue loss, which appears in healthy aging, the brain remains “resilient” to these changes and maintains the same level of function.

Can you build a cognitive reserve?

Research identifies several factors that have a link to high cognitive reserve. However, these factors represent correlational, not causal, relationships with high cognitive reserve.

Research to date has focused on the following factors:

Education: Research shows that education positively impacts the aging brain. Studies report that individuals with fewer years of education have a higher prevalence of dementia. Literature indicates that individuals become proficient in using cognitive strategies that are beneficial later in life to maintain healthy cognitive functioning levels.

Occupation: Occupation is measured by the longest position attained throughout a lifetime and correlates with cognitive reserve later in life. Occupation is broadly categorized into two dimensions: intellectual involvement and personal responsibility. The higher a particular occupation scores on the dimensions, the more positively it is linked with cognitive reserve. The more intellectually stimulating the occupation is, the higher the scores are on memory and higher executive functions tests later in life.

Lifestyle: Several population studies have indicated that some aspects of individual lifestyle can account for around 20% of the cognitive reserve differences. These include:

  • Cognitive and social activity: The overall well-being of an individual depends on a rich and stimulating social environment and cognitive activities. Both are associated with high cognitive reserves. Social activities involve seeing friends and family, participating in community or social groups, and maintaining relationships with neighbors, coworkers, and other groups. Cognitive activities performed alone or in a group could be listening to the radio, podcast, music, reading a newspaper, magazine, or book, playing board or other games such as cards or chess, or doing crosswords and puzzles. A routine and frequent involvement in these activities positively affect mood and cognitive reserve.
  • Physical activity: Different levels of physical activity contribute to healthy cognitive functioning. It is usually assessed based on level and frequency, such as once a year or less, several times a year, several times a month, several times a week, every day, or almost every day. The higher frequency and activity level are associated with better maintenance of cognitive functions.

- Mild physical activity is light gardening, housework, and some light home repairs.

- Moderate physical activity is lawn mowing, car cleaning, taking moderate-paced walks, dancing, floor or stretching exercises, and heavy housework.

- Vigorous physical activity is exercise like jogging, swimming, cycling, aerobics, tennis, and heavy gardening.

  • Healthy diet: Frequently consuming healthy, nutrient-rich foods such as fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, and whole/brown bread is beneficial to maintaining physical and cognitive health. Avoiding sugary and fatty foods is recommended. However, it is important to note that the studies on diet and cognitive reserve yielded somewhat controversial findings and should be focused more on the individual level.
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