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Staying on top past 90

We know that eating well and exercising daily improves mental functioning as we age. The science is solid. However, scientists have found minimal evidence that diet or exercise affect brain power, i.e. avert dementia, in people over age 90.

What does make a significant difference, however, is mental engagement. And it's apparently more than just doing crossword puzzles regularly — or reading a few good books. What's important is puzzling over some of the answers to that crossword by involving a friend, or chatting about the novels you enjoy by participating in a book club.

This finding comes out of a joint project run by the University of Southern California and the University of California, Irvine. This "90+ Study" has been going on for decades, one of the largest studies of health and mental acuity in the world. It originally involved 14,000 elders between ages 44 and 101. As it unfolded, researchers have come to believe there is a crucial "social component" to successful aging — and it becomes more important the older you get (www.alz.uci.edu/90+PlusStudy/indexhtml).

My ongoing interest in aging memory was activated after reading an article about this project in the New York Times (www.nytimes.com/brainpower). It profiled a bridge club in a Laguna Woods, Calif. retirement community "filled with people who have lived past age 90 without a trace of dementia." At this point, it might be important to note that fewer than one in 200 people who are 90-plus demonstrate a total lack of dementia in any form.

This specific sample of elders who are a part of this study spend long stretches of time totally engaged in an active, people-involved way, playing contract bridge with a group of their 90-plus age peers. That activity appears to put them at a reduced risk of developing dementia. I am not a player myself, but I know that contract bridge is a game that constantly "pushes" your brain function, tests your memory capacity. Each player must closely follow what is played and interpret his/her partner's strategy in order to win.

But the 90+ study is bigger than a game of cards. Researchers are taking many things into account in comparing the characteristics of those who live the longest. These participating elders have their medical histories analyzed and tracked. Information is gathered about diet, exercise, medications and evolving health. There is genetic testing and regular mental status check-ups.

The research is ongoing and will ultimately be pivotal in understanding aging, but one particular already-made observation caught my eye. Participants in the study reportedly "live for the day" and are "not particularly interested in the future or in the past." Here's where it might be important to note that the inability to form new memories about the specific day can often be an early indicator of dementia.

And there's something else worth noting. It's clear these folks enjoy their social interactions, are interested in one another. They reach out when an age peer starts to fail cognitively — but only to a point. If someone could not keep up mentally, they're out "¦ without a lot of group remorse. As reported in the Times, one resident said, "You have to decide how far you'll go ..." Another bridge-playing participant added, "You're not cruel, you're just busy."

That's what it's all about: staying in the game.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.