Brain scientists tap into the secrets of living well longer

The new thinking about aging considers not just how long one lives, but how vibrant one stays later in life.

“If you’re living, you want to be living well,” said Tim Peterson, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “Most people who were interested in life span and were studying genes — which control life span — switched to ‘healthspan.’” 

“Healthspan,” a coinage now gaining traction, refers to the years that a person can expect to live in generally good health — free of chronic illnesses and cognitive decline that can emerge near life’s end. Although there’s only so much a person can do to delay the onset of disease, there’s plenty that scientists are learning to improve your chances of a better healthspan.

The work takes on special resonance in light of a new report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showing that life expectancy in the United States has decreased in recent years. A rise in midlife mortality (ages 25 to 64) has dragged down the overall expectancy.

Because of the close brain-body connection, any degeneration in the brain affects not only cognitive function but also areas that control weight, appetite, personality, mood and blood pressure. Online games and brain-training exercises have become popular as another way to keep the brain sharp.

However, research on brain training reflects mixed results, including a study published last year in the journal Neuropsychologia, which “calls into question the benefit of cognitive training beyond practice effects.” Still, aging experts urge people as they age to work to keep mentally active, as well as physically active, to lengthen their healthspan.