You're Only as Old as . . .
For decades, the conventional medical wisdom about the aging human brain was as bleak as a Sartrean drama: You are born with a finite number of brain cells, and if you use them unwisely (so to speak) or you lose them to bad habits or to the conquest of aging, you don't get any more.
But what if, as panelists gathered for the Sesquicentennial "Symposium on Successful Aging" pointed out, the conventional wisdom is wrong? What if the brain can develop new cells, as recent research indicates? Or, what if the brain can be stimulated to make new use of aging cells, as research under way at Rochester shows?
"These are extraordinary findings that would not have been conceivable even a few years ago," said John Rowe '70M (MD), president and CEO of Aetna US Healthcare. "It's almost as if it's the eighth day of creation."
Rowe and other panelists-among them David Satcher '72M (Res), U.S. Surgeon General, and Howard Federoff, director of the University's Center for Aging and Developmental Biology -together shared the latest medical insights into what it means to age successfully.
Defining "successful aging" in terms of quality of life-moderator Robert Joynt, Distinguished University Professor of Neurology, harked back to the Greek ideal of "dying young as late in life as possible"-the panelists offered no newfangled fountains of youth.
Their prescriptions emphasized personal actions, such as exercising five times a week, controlling weight and diet, drinking responsibly, quitting smoking, and other lifestyle issues.
But, according to the panel, aging in the 21st century does not carry the bleak overtones it often bore in the past.
In the closest thing the panel had to offer in terms of wave-of-the-future elixirs, Federoff outlined recent Rochester research that indicates aging brain cells can be stimulated to learn. In studies on the use of bioengineered neurotransmitters in mice, his team has shown that aging neurons can be spurred into new life.
Rowe pointed out that many of the common ideas about aging are myths.
The aging body, for example, does respond to better health choices, he said. Quitting smoking, adding exercise, giving up bad habits-all of them do improve health, even for older people.
And social and psychological engagement has almost as much impact as physical activity.
"At this point," Rowe added, "I ask, 'New brains for what? New muscles for what? Added years of extra life for what?' The final component of successful aging is engagement with life."
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