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From Lifespan to Healthspan: Brain Scientists Tap Into The Secrets Of Living Well Longer

Yolan­da Esparza (right) and Mary Lyons (left) con­tin­ue their 2‑mile group trail ride orig­i­nat­ing from the Con­ley-Guer­rero Senior Activ­i­ty Cen­ter in Austin, Texas, on Dec. 3, 2019. (Julia Robin­son for KHN)


AUSTIN, Texas — Retired state employ­ees Vick­ey Ben­ford, 63, and Joan Cald­well, 61, are Gold­en Rollers, a group of the over-50 set that gets out on assort­ed bikes — includ­ing trikes for adults they call “three wheels of awe­some” — for an hour of trail rid­ing and cama­raderie.

I love to exer­cise, and I like to stay fit,” said Cald­well, who tried out a recum­bent bike, a low-impact option that can be eas­i­er on the back. “It keeps me young.”

Ben­ford encour­aged Cald­well to join the orga­nized rides, which have attract­ed more than 225 rid­ers at city rec cen­ters and senior activ­i­ty cen­ters. The cyclists can choose from a small, donat­ed fleet of recum­bent bikes, tan­dem recum­bents and tri­cy­cles.

With seniors, it’s less about trans­porta­tion and more about access to the out­doors, social engage­ment and qual­i­ty of life,” said Christo­pher Stan­ton, whose idea for Gold­en Rollers grew out of the Ghisal­lo Cycling Ini­tia­tive, a youth bik­ing non­prof­it he found­ed in 2011.

But that’s not all, accord­ing to brain sci­en­tists. They point to anoth­er impor­tant ben­e­fit: Exer­cis­ing both body and brain can help peo­ple stay health­i­er longer.

The new think­ing about aging con­sid­ers not just how long one lives, but how vibrant one stays lat­er in life.

If you’re liv­ing, you want to be liv­ing well,” said Tim Peter­son, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of inter­nal med­i­cine at the Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty School of Med­i­cine in St. Louis. “Most peo­ple who were inter­est­ed in life span and were study­ing genes — which con­trol life span — switched to ‘healthspan.’”

Healthspan,” a coinage now gain­ing trac­tion, refers to the years that a per­son can expect to live in gen­er­al­ly good health — free of chron­ic ill­ness­es and cog­ni­tive decline that can emerge near life’s end. Although there’s only so much a per­son can do to delay the onset of dis­ease, there’s plen­ty that sci­en­tists are learn­ing to improve your chances of a bet­ter healthspan.

The work takes on spe­cial res­o­nance in light of a new report pub­lished in the Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Med­ical Asso­ci­a­tion show­ing that life expectan­cy in the Unit­ed States has decreased in recent years. A rise in midlife mor­tal­i­ty (ages 25 to 64) has dragged down the over­all expectan­cy.

The idea is to make peo­ple pro­duc­tive, health­i­er and hap­pi­er longer and more capa­ble tak­ing care of them­selves,” said Andreana Haley, a psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin who is among this breed of researchers work­ing to under­stand healthspan. “We now live a long time with a lot of chron­ic dis­eases, and it’s not fun. It’s cost­ly — in terms of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, care­giv­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties, cost of health care.”

Haley, who col­lab­o­rates with exer­cise phys­i­ol­o­gists, nutri­tion­ists, behav­ioral neu­ro­sci­en­tists and physi­cians, said researchers from many oth­er dis­ci­plines are also study­ing healthspan, such as nurs­es, speech pathol­o­gists and phar­ma­cists.

Their work is inspired by an aging U.S. pop­u­la­tion with chang­ing needs. Accord­ing to the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau, 10,000 peo­ple a day turn 65, the nation’s fastest-grow­ing pop­u­la­tion seg­ment.

We have a lot of peo­ple who will need to be tak­en care of in the next 50 years,” she said, “and few­er young peo­ple to do the care.”

Haley, with UT’s Aging and Longevi­ty Cen­ter, focus­es her work on midlife, which she defines as ages 40 to 60, a time when health choic­es can have a big impact on old­er years. She’s espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in brain health.

Her team is col­lab­o­rat­ing with UT’s Human Laser Lab to pilot the use of low-lev­el light ther­a­py to increase brain ener­gy and improve cog­ni­tive per­for­mance.

Because of this close brain-body con­nec­tion, any degen­er­a­tion in the brain affects not only cog­ni­tive func­tion but also areas that con­trol weight, appetite, per­son­al­i­ty, mood and blood pres­sure.

Online games and brain-train­ing exer­cis­es have become pop­u­lar as anoth­er way to keep the brain sharp.

How­ev­er, research on brain train­ing reflects mixed results, includ­ing a study pub­lished last year in the jour­nal Neu­ropsy­cholo­gia, which “calls into ques­tion the ben­e­fit of cog­ni­tive train­ing beyond prac­tice effects.”

Still, aging experts urge peo­ple as they age to work to keep men­tal­ly active, as well as phys­i­cal­ly active, to length­en their healthspan.

One of the country’s largest con­tin­u­ing-care com­pa­nies, Acts Retire­ment Com­mu­ni­ties, offers res­i­dents week­ly social-based class­es for brain fit­ness and mem­o­ry devel­oped by Cyn­thia Green, an assis­tant clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try at Mount Sinai in New York City. Green said her brain health approach, avail­able since 2015, is offered at 150 retire­ment com­mu­ni­ties around the coun­try.

Some of the Acts com­mu­ni­ties are par­tic­i­pat­ing in a two-year study about mem­o­ry improve­ment super­vised by a researcher at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma.

Helen Marn­er and her hus­band, Jim, both 76, are study par­tic­i­pants at Indi­an Riv­er Estates, an Acts com­mu­ni­ty in Vero Beach, Fla.

I’m always inter­est­ed in bet­ter­ing my health, my brain and my body,” Helen Marn­er said. “I’m inter­est­ed in keep­ing myself as alive and cur­rent and bright as I can.”

Marn­er bikes, swims and attends exer­cise class­es. The for­mer kinder­garten teacher also sings in two choirs, designs and sews quilts, and is active around town as well as at Indi­an Riv­er Estates.

Mary Beth Val­lar, 74, and her hus­band, Bill, 88, joined the study at Vero Beach.

We fig­ured it couldn’t hurt,” Mary Beth Val­lar said. “They’re teach­ing us cer­tain tech­niques to remem­ber people’s names and remem­ber lists and remem­ber sequences. Their tech­niques are very help­ful.”

To remem­ber a list, tech­niques include tak­ing a men­tal snap­shot of it, orga­niz­ing the items into cat­e­gories or link­ing one word on the list to anoth­er. As for names, said Robin Leatherow, the Vero Beach community’s fit­ness direc­tor, a cre­ative strat­e­gy could be mak­ing up a sto­ry in your mind about the name or repeat­ing it to your­self.

There’s a lot of dif­fer­ent things you can do for brain health,” said There­sa Per­ry, Acts’ cor­po­rate direc­tor of well­ness ser­vices. “One is to engage with oth­er peo­ple. We thought it would be good for our res­i­dents and bet­ter than sit­ting in front of a com­put­er and play­ing games by your­self.”

Because research shows that peo­ple who stay active and exer­cise their brain “tend to be health­i­er and have bet­ter brain func­tion and will be phys­i­cal­ly health­i­er because of the brain-body cir­cuit­ry,” the recent shift to improve healthspan makes sense, said Peter­son, of Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty.

It’s qual­i­ty of life ver­sus quan­ti­ty of life,” he said. “It’s prob­a­bly as sim­ple as that.”


Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a nation­al health pol­i­cy news ser­vice. It is an edi­to­ri­al­ly inde­pen­dent pro­gram of the Hen­ry J. Kaiser Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion which is not affil­i­at­ed with Kaiser Per­ma­nente.

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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