Getting very old does not necessarily come with the absolute decline in mental
and physical functioning that many people expect, new research shows.
A study of two groups of Danish people in their 90s finds that those born in
1915 not only lived longer than people born a decade earlier, they also scored
significantly better on measures of cognitive ability and activities of daily
Even after adjusting for increases in education in a decade, people born in 1915
"still performed better in the cognitive measures, which suggests that changes
in other factors such as nutrition, burden of infectious disease, work
environment, intellectual stimulation and general living conditions also play an
important part in the improvement of cognitive functioning," says the study,
published online Wednesday in The Lancet.
Findings challenge speculation that living longer "is the result of the survival
of very frail and disabled elderly people," says lead researcher Kaare
Christensen of the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, director of the
Danish Aging Research Center.
This is "impressive evidence that older today can be better than years past,
especially in regards to brain health," says Sandra Bond Chapman, founder of the
Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas-Dallas. She was not involved
in the new study.
In 2010, she published research showing that doing challenging activities
strengthens and preserves cognitive capacity as people age.
"Until recently, cognitive losses in aging were viewed as an inevitable
consequence of living longer rather than a brain condition to be addressed," she
says. The data "provide hard evidence to inspire hope and motivation for the
global graying and aging of the brain in developed countries."
An accompanying editorial says the study offers "good news" that "age-related
cognitive decline in very elderly people is malleable" and "might even suggest
the possibility of lowering the incidence or delaying the onset of dementia."