Feature StoriesHealth & Wellness

The Psychology of Healthy Aging

Behavioral science research has conclusively shown that psychological factors impact quality of life for adults over age 50. Seniors have tangible opportunities to maintain their cognitive acuity and physical vitality that will benefit personal health and wellness outcomes. Yet millions of mature adults leave these rewards on the table.

Nearly everyone who passes the threshold of their 50th year has reflected on the risk of losing their cognitive agility – with good reason. NIH – The National Institute of Health – reports that 40-45% of adults over 65 experiences some kind of memory impairment. Every senior citizen dreads the appearance of symptoms that could potentially suggest a dementia diagnosis.

The human brain is a miracle of evolutionary development. Major software companies have devoted billions of dollars to building artificially intelligent systems that mimic the human brain. Despite well publicized successes in the ability to play chess and a few other specific applications, the technology initiatives have disappointed. With a few exceptions ‘AI’ remains stuck in its toddler phase.

A sixty-year-old adult has no more neurons in his or her brain than they did when they born – less, in fact. The brain ‘prunes’ neural circuits that are idle, resulting in fewer actual neurons in the adult brain. With one notable exception, the human brain does not generate new neurons.

Seniors should know that they have the power to generate new neurons in the hippocampus, a sea horse shaped element of the brain tucked deep in the middle of the skull. The hippocampus plays a central role in the formation and storage of memory. Mature adults can actively promote neurogenesis in their hippocampus every day. Two activities stimulate this process. Physical exercise and challenging mental activity are the two features of a regimen that will generate new ‘wiring’ in the hippocampus.

In our own research with 1600 adult residents of Silicon Valley, we showed that active lifestyle habits can be either strengthened or undermined by psychological factors. The problem is that these psychological dynamics often operate ‘behind the scenes’ or what we call ‘backstage.’

We live at a time when the psychological impact on health-oriented behavior has rarely, if ever, been more dramatically displayed. In the coming weeks, hundreds of our fellow citizens will potentially die because they believe purveyors of conspiracy tainted information regarding the evils of the Covid vaccine. Groundless beliefs are literally creating life and death scenarios.

Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated, “We know that … being active is the closest thing we have to a wonder drug.”  Yet, according to the CDC, over 60% of American adults fall short of recommended activity habits and 25% of the population maintain totally sedentary habits.

Researchers at the the University of California San Francisco concluded that close to half of all Alzheimer’s cases could be prevented with positive lifestyle habits. Our own research sample revealed insidious psychological habits that were associated with sedentary behavior.

In the meantime, know that you can do something important to promote your brain health right now! Go out for a brisk walk.

Richard Houston holds a Doctorate in Education and was licensed by the Massachusetts Board of Psychology. He is a graduate of Brown University. He has conducted research on the psychological dimensions of healthy lifestyle behaviors and has had long term consulting relationships with several continuing care retirement communities. You can visit his website at Resilience-Advocate.com.

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