Meanwhile, memory loss isn’t the only age-related decline that can be reversed. So, too, can the frailty of old age, says Robert Kahn, PhD, 81, of the University of Michigan. Kahn, co-author of “Successful Aging” (Pantheon, 1998) says that most older people, even the very old and weak, “have the capacity to increase their muscle strength, balance, walking ability and overall aerobic power.”
Many older people tout the value of a daily exercise regimen in maintaining their positive outlook on life and physical health. But, in fact, says Kahn, a major benefit of pursuing a physical exercise program is for its influence on memory.
“Physically active people are most likely to maintain sharp mental ability,” he says.
Memory enhancement also appears to be a potential benefit of a balanced diet, says new research. While it’s been widely proven that good nutrition enhances overall health, research recently conducted at Tufts University, for example, found that men aged 50 and older who had low levels of the B vitamins folate and B12 were not as good at performing memory tests as those with higher levels of vitamin B.
Other research in the past several years has linked mental dexterity to vitamins C, E and beta carotene: These antioxidants may prevent damage to the brain’s neurons.
Social support vital
Another key research finding that promotes successful aging is the need to stay connected with other people. Yet even as research has shown for years the value of promoting and developing social support programs, it is often overlooked.
“Psychology can get the word out that certain kinds of behaviors, like diet and exercise, are important,” notes Kahn. “But a less appreciated area is specifically psychological. People do better if they continue to engage with life and maintain close relationships.”
Those relationships can enhance both physical and mental health. For instance, a study of 695 older men and women - mean age 79 - by Namkee Choi, PhD, and John Wodarski, PhD, of the State University of New York-Buffalo, published in 1996, examined the relationship between social support and the health status of elderly people. They found that “social support for the elderly tends to slow down further deterioration of their health, proving that a higher level of social support may result in better health outcomes.”
And in another 1996 study, Maria Mireault, PhD, and Anton de Man, PhD, of Concordia University in Montreal, found that thoughts of suicide in aging adults were connected to “high social isolation,” and “dissatisfaction with health and social support.”
“There is a definite link between social support and health,” adds psychologist David Myers, PhD, author of “Pursuit of Happiness” (Avon, 1993). “Those who enjoy close relationships eat better, exercise more and smoke and drink less. Perhaps, a supportive network helps us evaluate and overcome stressful events.”
And just perhaps, Irene Deitch, PhD, a veteran New York therapist, embodies not only what Ponce deLeon never found - the secret of healthy long life - but the ideal model that the rest of her psychology colleagues are homing in on.
“I am a woman of a certain age,” she says, politely sidestepping the “number issue” during a recent conversation.
“I’m still running first place in my age group, still holding up beautifully. I start the day running three miles. I play tennis, keep office hours, I teach full time. I am trying new things, taking piano lessons, learning how to hike. I don’t feel I’m supposed to look a certain way or dress a certain way. The moment I do that I’m segregating myself. As soon as people segregate themselves, they see themselves in a certain way, buying into stereotypes about themselves, buying into what others say about them, which leads to depression and withdrawal. I don’t think I’ll live to be 100, but I’ll live until I check out. I’m enjoying my life because there’s just so much to do.”
C. KERMIT PHELPS, 91, was out raking leaves when the Monitor called to ask about the secrets to his successful aging.
“Exercise is essential,” says Phelps of Kansas City, Mo. “It can take five or six minutes, but do it every day to keep the muscles supple.”
Eating right and intellectual stimulation are also critical, he says. His cerebral outlet is lecturing at the Shepherds Center, a senior citizens organization that he spearheaded in Kansas City that has expanded to 160 locations across the United States. These centers offer classes in creative arts and language, as well as his own creation, “Life Enrichment,” a lecture aimed at helping older people grow emotionally.
“From age 55 on,” he says, “you have to focus on what is on the inside, not just what is on the outside. People need to do an internal audit to see what they can improve and what they can throw away.”