The Ageless Inspiration of Activity

New research reveals how physical activity helps preserve our brain function.

Posted Oct 20, 2016

Aging doesn't mean we have to get old. Getting old comes with all sorts of baggage that isn't a requirement of the aging process. A case in point... meet Jeanne Socrates. Former mathematics professor, current mother and grandmother. And always a sailor.

At 2:26 a.m. on Monday, July 8th, 2013 Jeanne Socrates sailed into Victoria Harbor. This was her triumphant return after successfully circumnavigating the globe solo. At age 70 she became the oldest woman to ever do so.

On Wednesday, October 20, 2016, now aged 74, Jeanne has set sail again. This time her target is the entry in Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest person—man or woman—to sail non-stop around the world by herself, without assistance of any kind.

Sailing requires a combination of mental and physical discipline and fitness. Jeanne's attempt at circumnavigation is a true test—and testament—to the power of the human will and achievement.

Work from Jinsung Wang and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin shows how powerful an active healthy lifestyle (such as that of a solo sailor) can actually be. It's commonly understood that a certain lateralization of function exists in the human brain. Training in the motor system involves transfer of skills between the trained limbs. In one study, "A positive association between active lifestyle and hemispheric lateralization for motor control and learning in older adults," just published in Behavioural Brain Research, Wang and friends looked at training effects between the arms and adaptation to reaching to targets that changed positions. This is a way to test for the extent of training between the limbs.

Wang and colleagues studied 28 healthy older adults (64-76 y) who were separated into two groups based on being either sedentary or physically active. When they examined the extent of training transfer between the limbs an asymmetry--such as found typically in healthy young adults--was observed in the physically active individuals. 

In contrast, the sedentary participants had symmetrical transfer of visuomotor adaptation. That is, the pattern of transfer normally seen in younger adults was lost. This led to the conclusion that, in addition to a whole host of other benefits, a physically active lifestyle may help older adults maintain their lateralized motor function late in life.

This seems clearly to be another example of "use it or lose it", similar to other examples I've discussed in this blog. I look forward to following Jeanne's exploits and to welcoming her back to Victoria next year upon completion of another successful circumnavigation. She is a clear example of using it so she won't be losing it!

We can't stop the process of aging (yet!) but we can decide to not act out society's expectations of our age. Aging truly doesn't mean we have to get old.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2016)