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Monday, June 1, 2009

The "Social" Science of Aging

FROM RABBI RICHARD ADDRESS, UNION FOR REFORM JUDAISM: What allows people to live longer? What are the ”key” components of healthy aging? These are the big questions at the center of the longevity revolution.
Recently, The New York Times carried an interesting piece on the members of California's Laguna Woods Village retirement community who meet daily to play bridge. The mental acuity needed for the game and the social support associated with the activity keep showing up as major elements in healthy aging. Scientists are studying the residents as part of The 90+ Study, which looks at health and brain power in the elderly, and they argue that social connections may help delay the onset of dementia.
Dr. Claudia Kawas, a neurologist at the University of California, Irvine, notes:

There is quite a bit of evidence now suggesting that the more people you have contact with, in your own home or outside, the better you do. Interacting with people regularly, even strangers, uses easily as much brain power as doing puzzles, and it wouldn’t surprise me if this is what it’s all about.
There have been longer, longitudinal studies that validate the Laguna Woods data. For more than four decades, Dr. George Vaillant has been the caring keeper of The Study of Adult Development. Started in 1937 as a study of male Harvard University sophomores, the study has tracked the lives of these men and attempted to discover some of the secrets involved in living a long and healthy life. Vaillant recorded much of the results in his book Aging Well and the details of his work are discussed in June's Atlantic Monthly. Like the Laguna Woods study, his research also highlights the importance of social connections. According to the article, Vaillant has found a number of factors that predict healthy aging, including a stable marriage, not smoking or abusing alcohol, regular exercise, and education, yet he once wrote that, “It is social aptitude not intellectual brilliance or parental social class that leads to successful aging." And in a 2008 newsletter to the subjects of his study, he said the research has taught him, "That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
It's lovely: The science of aging begins and ends with the relationships we create with other people. These relationships build a strong social support, which goes a long way toward maintaining physical and psychological health and a positive outlook, regardless of the number of years we have lived.