Why Do We Age Differently? Tips on How to Slow It Down

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.

What is healthy aging?

The World Health Organization predicts that by 2050, there will be approximately 2.1 billion individuals over 60. 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 pathological aging.

Why do we age differently?

So why do some of us maintain our sharp minds, while some of us tend to become forgetful and limited by our age? The answer to this question lies in the theory of cognitive reserve (CR). Cognitive reserve 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.

Tips to slow down aging

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. Similar findings are reported from studies on the number of languages spoken throughout the lifetime and additional abilities, for example, practicing an instrument.

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 function 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, or 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.

What makes us age quicker?

Similarly to factors that are helpful for healthy aging, there are, of course, factors that negatively affect us.

Unhealthy diet and lifestyle. If you are indulging in fast and highly processed food often, consume alcohol often and/or a lot, smoke or use illegal substances, do not hydrate properly — these are all enemies of healthy aging. These factors can make you age faster.

Stress, anxiety, insufficient sleep, and lack of exercising have also been shown to negatively impact aging.

Aging is not something we understand to the fullest at the moment. There are some ambitious scientists out there who are already viewing aging as a disease, not something inevitable, yet we are far away from the 'cure' for aging. However, meanwhile, we can rely on staying physically healthy and mentally engaged — that shows promising results in maintaining a sharp mind and better quality of life during our late days of life.

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