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Apr 21 / Wendy Bartlo

“Good” Cities and “Successful” Aging: the Anthropology of Aging in Detroit Neighborhoods

wendy bartloAs I was in the final stages of collecting the data for my dissertation, a relative at a family event asked me what I was researching.  After I responded, “Older people in Detroit neighborhoods,” she looked at me and asked, “Is that as bleak as it sounds?”  In her mind I was examining the intersection of two miserable topics, both focused on despair, decline, and isolation.  She was surprised when I assured her, that at least for my study participants, it was not as bleak as she imagined.  “What could make aging in Detroit good?” she asked me.  She was surprised when I explained that their social networks, friendships, and active participation with community service organizations made Detroit a good place to be an older person.

Gerontology related research in the contemporary United States is focused on aging well and threats to aging well, with social isolation as a critical component of aging experiences deemed unsatisfactory.    The essential tenet that guides this research is the idea of “successful aging” first put forth by Rowe and Kahn (1987). Successful aging differs from “usual” or expected ideas about aging that focus on decline and loss of function. This effort to rebrand the aging experience as something to be controlled through individual agency has been heavily critiqued, most recently by Rubinstein and de Medeiros (2015) who link the concept of “successful aging” to the neoliberal political milieu under which it was conceived.  They consider the potentially harmful impacts of this association which suggest that society is not responsible for offering assistance to those who “unsuccessfully” age as they have done so through their own fault.

As a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology and former Institute of Gerontology Pre-Doctoral trainee,  I am in interested in exploring ideas about “successful aging” in spaces widely deemed “unsuccessful” like the city of Detroit. Conversations about “successful aging” and the older person often mirror rhetoric and media representations of “good cities” (Zukin 2009) where individuals are responsible for their own individual health and maintenance. Under the gaze of a neoliberal ideology society is not responsible for bankrupt, declining cities who fail to attract businesses, residents, or visitors.  Through the same gaze of neoliberal “successful aging,” society is not responsible for older individuals who fail to maintain their own finances, physical health, or personal happiness.

For the past two years I have been engaged in conducting ethnographic research with older Detroit residents about their experiences of aging in the city.  Many older Detroit residents expressed that although there were challenges to aging in Detroit, it was still a good place to grow old and they would not be happy leaving for suburban or retirement communities. Rebecca, age 77 and a long-time resident of the Detroit neighborhood of Lafayette Park, expressed to me:

I would not leave Lafayette Park, I cannot think of anywhere else that I would want to live, it’s my neighborhood, it’s my kibbutz, my support structure and I think we have contributed to it as well.  I would not leave Detroit, although there are times when I am absolutely worn out and overwhelmed by the difficulties and the problems that it has, but I have a strong belief that I have a responsibility to participate in doing what I can to improve it.”  

Anthropologists have long contended that aging is both an embodied and cultural experience, one that is unique to all individuals.  Based on the criteria set forth by Rowe and Kahn, only 12% of older adults age “successfully” in any one given year in the United States (McLaughlin et al 2010); I contend that the Rowe and Kahn notion of “usual” aging has little utility for examining the lives of older adults, as every older person experiences later life differently based on a variety of factors.  My research with older adults in Detroit maintains that we not only need to consider individual metrics for aging well, but that different and often stigmatized environments provide opportunities for social lives and community participation that may be sources of great satisfaction, happiness, and support in old age.



McLaughlin, S.J., et al.

2010       Successful Aging in the United States: Prevalence estimates from a national sample of older adults. The Journal of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences             65:216-226.

Rowe, John W, and Robert L Kahn

1987       Human aging: usual and successful. Science 237(4811):143-149.

Rubinstein, Robert L, and Kate de Medeiros

2015       “Successful Aging,” Gerontological Theory and Neoliberalism: A Qualitative Critique. The Gerontologist 55(1).

Zukin, Sharon

2009       Changing landscapes of power: opulence and the urge for authenticity. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 33(2):543-553.

Mar 17 / Michael Sugarman

Unlocking the secrets to Alzheimer’s disease through MRI

HeadshotAlzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and is a worldwide health concern. It is characterized by progressive and irreversible changes in memory, attention, self-care, behavior, motor skills, and language functioning. Currently, about 1 out of 9 adults aged 65 or older have Alzheimer’s, and this figure increases to 1 out of 3 for adults aged 85 or older. A total of 5.2 million Americans have a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, and this number is projected to more than double by the year 2050 as life expectancy increases.

I am a doctoral candidate in the Clinical Psychology program at Wayne State University, conducting research with my primary mentor, Dr. John L. Woodard, and colleagues at the Cleveland Clinic, Marquette University, Rosalind Franklin University, and the University of Maryland. Our group studies Alzheimer’s disease; however, we do not directly work with anyone diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Rather, we are working with healthy older adults without any major memory concerns. The reason for this is that the changes in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease accumulate for up to 20 years before we see any observable clinical symptoms such as memory loss or difficulty with self-care. Thus, by the time individuals are diagnosed with the condition, treatments may have little to no impact in altering the disease course because so much damage has already occurred.

Our lab is interested in attempting to detect signs of Alzheimer’s disease as early as possible. One promising method for studying risk for Alzheimer’s disease is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). fMRI is a special type of MRI scan in which we can detect which regions of the brain are most active when an individual is engaged in a particular task.

In our research, we have utilized a simple task called the Famous Name Discrimination Task, in which participants are shown a series of names on a computer screen while in the MRI scanner. The names are either well-recognizable names of famous people (e.g., Elton John, Bill Clinton) or non-famous names drawn randomly from the phone book. The participants’ task is simply to press a button indicating whether the name is famous or non-famous; most older adults can successfully complete this task at close to 100% accuracy.

We’ve found that when people recognize famous names, they use a network of brain regions that are also many of the same regions associated with the early changes in Alzheimer’s disease. Further, we can see differences in brain recruitment between healthy older adults with and without risk factors for Alzheimer’s, including having a parent with the condition and/or possessing the APOE ε4 allele, a gene associated with an increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. For example, individuals with these risk factors typically display a greater amount of brain activity than those without the risk factors, indicating that these individuals may have to use more “brain power” to perform the task. This finding could indicate early changes in brain function potentially associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Importantly, we observed these differences in older adults who were performing normally on psychological tests of memory skills and who reported no concerns in self-care abilities.

When we followed these individuals 18 months later, we found that the fMRI brain activity was useful in predicting who showed early cognitive changes in memory testing. This finding substantiated that fMRI may be clinically useful in determining who is at the highest risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. Identifying these individuals is important because it allows for preventative interventions to be implemented as early as possible. Specifically, a number of lifestyle behaviors, including physical activity, social engagement, cognitively stimulating activities, and a Mediterranean-style diet have all been associated with a lower likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Currently, we are working on developing new tasks that may be even more sensitive to risk for Alzheimer’s disease. These tasks are similar in presentation style to the Famous Name Discrimination Task, but require recognition of more specific information associated with famous names, including an individual’s occupational category (e.g., Politician, Musician, Actor, etc.), specific bodies of work, and life events. We believe that studying this more specific information may be more sensitive to the subtle brain changes that occur early in the Alzheimer’s disease process.

For more information, please see:

Sugarman, MA, Woodard, JL, Nielson, KA, Seidenberg, M, Smith, JC, Durgerian, S, & Rao, SM (2012). Functional magnetic resonance imaging of semantic memory as a presymptomatic biomarker of Alzheimer’s disease risk. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta: Molecular Basis of Disease 1822, 442-456. DOI: 10.1016/j.bbadis.2011.09.016

Woodard, JL & Sugarman, MA (2012). Functional magnetic resonance imaging in aging and dementia: detection of age-related cognitive changes and prediction of cognitive decline. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences 10, 113-136. DOI: 10.1007/7854_2011_159

Feb 11 / Peter Lichtenberg

Fifty Years of Gerontology and Counting

IOG 50 Years tOver the past fifty years the Institute of Gerontology has made exciting and groundbreaking discoveries through our research on aging. Our multi-disciplinary institute has examined aging through a variety of lenses with a focus on recognizing the valuable contributions of each. We’re not just scholars, we’re supporters of future scientists and their development. The IOG remains steadfast in providing a unique venue for students to advance their own research, platform to share that research, and opportunities to learn about other research.
While we have and will persist towards expanding knowledge on the social, emotional, physical, environmental, financial and occupational complexities affiliated with growing old, we also plan to continue to pave the way for getting pertinent information to those who need it most. In our fifty years, Detroit has been at the forefront of our mission, and that won’t change. Through outreach we’ll continue to create learning opportunities for those who provide care for older adults including social workers, nurses, administrators, occupational therapists, and educators via our continuing education events and conferences. We also create spaces for older adults to learn, whether at our educational forums or in our writing workshops where experience informs expression.
The IOG has come a long way since 1965 and our sights are set on continuing exploration of the dynamic conditions and challenges that aging presents. Within our halls conversations continue to spark uncommon collaborations and unique opportunities for innovation in research, training, advising, and education. We look forward to many more years of following our passion- improving the lives of older adults in Detroit and beyond.

peter poster day from graduate school website

To learn more about the IOG please visit us @

Dec 15 / Ana Daugherty

Calling All Mentors: Promoting Women in Science

ana drawing brainIn a trailer that housed Mr. Todd’s fourth grade class, I first realized I would be a scientist. I was a determined 4-foot-tall girl with freckles and, in my innocence, science was the action of possibility. Mr. Todd was the first teacher to encourage my fascination, and I adored him for it. Yet at the same time, I faced the reality of prejudice against my sex. I had earned the coveted first place ranking on multiplication tables. I remember my male peers jeered when I picked out a small hobby motor from the prize box. “You’re a girl,” one said. “You can’t make anything with that.” A week later, I stood before Mr. Todd with a defiant smirk and a clockwork windmill, powered by my prize motor, which he generously allowed me to display on my desk.

I went on to earn a doctorate in neuroscience and, sadly, the fourth grade was not the last time I faced gender bias. I am not alone in the experience. Dedicated elementary school programming has increased the number of girls who major in a STEM discipline (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as undergraduates1. But women still represent less than 20% of many STEM majors2. In my field, about half of neuroscience graduate students are female, but only 25% of tenured faculty in university departments are women2. This is not unique to neuroscience: male scientists in applied and university jobs outnumber women by 2.5 times2.  In other words, recruitment of women is improving, but retention is lagging.

The lack of tenured female faculty appears as an implicit bias against women in science. Tautology of women being biologically different from men was used for years to excuse the unbalanced representation in higher education. Recently, however, under the masthead of a top neuroscience journal, this was dismissed in recognition of an implicit bias in hiring and retaining women scientists3. The lack of women faculty is another barrier for female students when weighing the risk of pursuing an academic or applied science post. Increasing diversity in academic departments will improve retention of women in science. The good news is that with awareness comes change; in time we will see more women in higher education. Perhaps we can hurry this along with dedicated mentorship.

I was fortunate as a graduate student to have a second appointment at the Institute of Gerontology, which embraces diversity and champions multi-disciplinary research of aging. In the Institute’s halls are phenomenal mentors who work diligently to create a culture wherein all students, regardless of gender, are encouraged to be leaders in departmental functions and their respective fields of research. And while I have personally benefitted from this, the more important result is that the Institute and the scientific work it produces have benefitted as well. This conclusion follows from the simple truth that inclusion of all voices in the STEM fields is not only a matter of fairness, but also a matter of empirical quality. Mentoring women toward careers in science ensures diversity in the academe, which is the best opportunity for inspiration and innovation. This is a core philosophy of the Institute of Gerontology; one that I have come to value even more in retrospect.


For more on mentoring women in science:

Dean, DJ. (2009). Getting the most out of your mentoring relationships: A handbook for women in STEM. Springer: New York, NY.

Association for Women in Science.

Women in Science.


1 National Center for Women and Information Technology. “Girls in it: The facts”.

2 National Science Foundation.

3 Editorial. (2010). Wanted: women in research. Nature Neuroscience, 13(3): 267.

Nov 5 / Cheryl Deep

Diabetes Month: Focus on Care Not Scare

Cheryl Freep

Living with diabetes means dealing with several scary statistics. Older adults with diabetes are at increased risk of heart and vision problems, kidney disease, and vascular changes that can damage limbs. Diabetes is also on the rise: more than 25% of US citizens age 65 or older have it, with the highest rates in African Americans and Hispanics.

There is a positive side to the diabetes coin, though. This disease is very treatable. With the right medications and a commitment to diet and lifestyle changes, damage from diabetes can be reduced or eliminated, and sometimes diabetes can even be reversed.

You Make All the Difference

The goal is to keep blood glucose levels as close to normal as safely possible to reduce the risk of major complications. You must be vigilant to achieve this. Low blood glucose can make you feel weak, confused, irritable, hungry, or tired. You may sweat a lot or get a headache. You may feel shaky. If your blood glucose drops lower, you could pass out or have a seizure. High blood glucose can make you very thirsty and tired, blur your vision, and cause frequent urination. You may also feel sick to your stomach.

Healthy eating, regular exercise, maintaining good blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and testing glucose levels are the tools to control diabetes. Some people may also require insulin pills or injections to control blood glucose. You should monitor blood glucose levels daily, and have an A1C laboratory test several times a year. The A1C determines your average blood glucose level over the past 2 to 3 months, an indicator of how well your body is being protected from diabetes damage.

Support from a Team of Experts

A team of medical specialists can provide whole-patient care for your diabetes:

• a primary care physician
• an endocrinologist (specialize in diabetes care)
• a certified diabetes educator (often a nurse or dietitian) to teach meal and lifestyle changes
• a podiatrist to care for your feet, since they are vulnerable to diabetes’ effects
• and an ophthalmologist for eye care

As the person with diabetes, you are the captain of your health care team. Your self-care and attention to symptoms can take the scare out of diabetes. Make the effort to control your diabetes, and you lessen the chance that diabetes will control you.

The Institute of Gerontology offers free learning workshops throughout the year on diabetes, hypertension and other health issues of special concern to older adults. Visit the calendar at for details.

Cheryl Deep, MA is the Director of Media Relations and Communications at the IOG, visit her profile here.

Oct 17 / Thomas Jankowski

Innovation in Aging Services, Part 1

tom jankowski chair cropped

When we think of innovation, we often think of new technology. This is true of just about every field, including aging services. There are plenty of technological advances in aging services: Remote monitoring systems that can tell a family caregiver a thousand miles away when Mom has gotten out of bed, gone into the bathroom, or opened the refrigerator door. Medicine dispensers that remind people when to take their pills. Internet-connected medical devices that can send blood pressure readings to a doctor in another place. Cars that drive themselves. Even smart flooring that can detect a slip and instantly soften to absorb the impact of a fall. All of these things are wonderful. They have a high “Wow!” factor, and its fun and easy to imagine technology solving all of our problems in a sort of science fiction utopia. But in the real world, that’s probably not going to happen. Some of these things may be quite helpful, and some may be a more cost effective way of doing things that service providers already do, but they are not a panacea. As long as there are older people who don’t get the dental care they need, who live in substandard housing, who are victims of fraud and abuse, or who have to choose between buying groceries and filling a prescription, our biggest problems cannot be solved by electronic gadgets.

Innovation involves a lot more than just technology. Most of the best innovations in the field of aging services involve people and organizations and how they relate to one another, how they help one another, how they share data and refer clients between one another, and how they cooperate to stretch precious service dollars further. Service providers have to constantly assess changing needs and respond to those changes. They have to evaluate what they are doing and how they are doing it, and try to do it better and less expensively and more effectively. They have to break down the silos that divide them, bridge divides, build partnerships, collaborate, and avoid the turf wars that have wasted resources and diverted their attention from the task at hand, which is to serve the needs of older adults and those who care for them.

How can that be done? The first thing we need to remember is that any individual agency cannot do it alone. They need to reach out and work with other organizations that serve the older adult population, or serve other populations with similar needs. The movement in Michigan toward ADRCs, Aging and Disability Resource Centers, is a good example of this trend. Those other organizations don’t have to be non-profits, and they don’t even have to be social service agencies at all. Particularly in rural areas, leveraging existing organizations can help seniors in a much more cost effective way, and can help the other organizations as well. Think about the places that seniors often congregate: Churches. VFW and Elks and Knights of Columbus halls. Diners and coffee shops. Pharmacies and post offices and public libraries. If aging service providers are trying to reach out, if they’re trying to develop community based programming, if they’re trying to stretch service dollars, they should think about ways they can work with businesses, clubs, and other public and private institutions to distribute information, provide services, and maybe even help them expand their senior membership or customer base. They need to look for opportunities to create partnerships that benefit all involved. These kinds of synergies can increase the impact of every dollar we spend providing services to older adults who need them.

And even among aging service providers, they need to work more closely together to minimize service overlap, fill gaps, play to each other’s strengths, and find as many ways to cooperate as they can. One organization that I work with is called the Southeast Michigan Senior Regional Collaborative. It covers Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties, and it has more than 25 member organizations that serve seniors in some capacity. They have found it in their interests to band together to do everything from assess needs in the community, train staff members, advocate for older adults with policymakers, gather and report data to funders, and join forces to exploit economies of scale in back office operations and purchase of services. I’m not being a Pollyanna; community partnerships and collaborations take great time and effort to build, can be difficult to hold together, and sometimes require an immediate investment that does not fully pay off until some time later. Collaboration can be hard work, it can be risky, but the potential rewards are great. The pie is shrinking and the number of people clamoring for pieces of it is growing. Organizations that serve older adults can no longer afford the luxury of fighting each other or trying to do their work in isolation.

Another thing to remember is that seniors are not a different species. They’re human beings too, key members of our communities, with families and friends of all ages, with children and grandchildren and neighborhood kids they care deeply about. The interests of all these different people intersect in some way or another, and sometimes those interests can be served in tandem. If you are affiliated in any way with the aging network, you have probably have heard of Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions, and RSVP, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, which are wonderful programs whose full potential has never been realized due to underfunding. However, there are plenty of other innovative ways to involve older people in their communities, and many of them are quite inexpensive. Take Experience Corps, for example. It started as a small pilot program in Baltimore and has expanded to include over 2,000 older adult volunteers in 20 cities, including Grand Rapids right here in Michigan. The older volunteers work with their local public elementary schools to tutor young children in reading. Research has shown that those types of volunteer efforts boost student performance, reduce truancy and behavior problems in schools, help reduce the burden on teachers with crowded classrooms, and most importantly for our purposes, increase the mental and physical well-being and life satisfaction of the older volunteers. Everybody needs a reason to get out of bed in the morning, especially those who have retired from work and whose children are grown. It may be a cliché, but programs like Experience Corps create a win-win situation for everyone.

There are plenty of other good examples of ways in which intergenerational synergies can be developed to help serve older adults, children, and families together. In my next blog post, I’ll review a few other intergenerational programs that can address multiple problems simultaneously, and I will urge aging service providers to break out of the time-worn molds that have held them back and reduced the effectiveness and efficiency of the services they deliver.

This essay was adapted from the keynote address by Thomas B. Jankowski, PhD, at the Midland County Council on Aging Annual Meeting and Senior Services 50th Anniversary Dinner, November 12, 2013.

Sep 3 / Heather Dillaway

IOG Alum Publishes Book on Hospice Care Experience

birthing death bookWe at the Institute of Gerontology are proud to announce that IOG alum Sue Fabian IOG alum published Birthing Death in April 2014. In this book, Fabian offers the inner-world roller coaster ride of her experience with the end of life as an Elder Law attorney, Geriatric Care Manager, and devoted daughter about the final 27 days before her mother’s death. Although she was the sole caregiver for her mother, Violet, for 22 years, she describes the final 27 days of in-patient hospice care as “breath-taking,” “heavy” and “intense”, as she and her brothers waited to “birth” her mother’s spirit through bodily death. Fabian gracefully details the toll that this experience takes on caregivers, as well as the importance of knowing how to walk through family landmines, digest barraging medical information and decide treatment–all necessarily a part of the end of life when one’s emotions are flooding to overload.

Throughout this twelve-chapter journey, Fabian prompts the reader to think ahead about important logistical, medical and emotional decisions with chapter-ending “Toolbag Thoughts: “What decisions are you making about how you will cope?” (p.7). “Is there something you can do to help yourself prepare for the inevitable call (that your loved one has died)?” (p. 54). “If special days are on the horizon, how do you want them to look knowing your loved one will not be physically present?” (p. 91). Fabian also uses her legal background in sharing hard-won patient advocacy tips and the power in one’s Medical Power of Attorney. Following the death, Fabian encourages readers to engage in activities that carry on the loved one’s legacy. Finally she offers suggestions for hospitals, hospices and other health care settings to improve the waiting room experience for intensely grieving family members.

Birthing Death is available for purchase at Amazon books. Fabian will also be available to give local talks on end-of-life caregiving and her book. To contact Sue Fabian directly, please visit or call (248) 585-7917.

Congratulations, Sue, on your important new book!

Aug 13 / Carrie Leach

IOG Insider: Dr. Lisa Ficker

ficker 2014Our IOG Insider blog posts provide a glimpse into the IOG and the people inside to learn more about what led them to the field of aging and to the Institute of Gerontology. This month showcases the warm and talented Dr. Lisa Ficker currently a postdoctoral fellow who works closely with Dr. Peter Lichtenberg on a variety of projects. Read on to learn more about how she got her start in aging and the journey that led her here.

Can you tell us about yourself and the work you do at the IOG?

I first came to the IOG as a student volunteer while taking undergraduate classes in psychology in Fall, 1998. Peter Lichtenberg had just been made the interim director. So, I feel like I’ve been at the IOG since the beginning! I helped interview seniors in a data collection for a graduate student’s dissertation. After I was accepted to graduate school, I studied at the IOG and the department of psychology and eventually, I had other students help me on my dissertation. After graduating in 2010 with a PhD in clinical psychology, I was hired to help manage various research projects at both the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute and the Institute of Gerontology: a study of Detroit grandparents caring for grandchildren, an evaluation of a substance abuse prevention program in 200 Michigan high schools, and I’m currently helping Peter on his financial decision making study. The goal of this study is to develop a tool to identify seniors who are vulnerable to financial exploitation. I also have a private practice in Macomb County that focuses on issues that senior face: adjustment to widowhood, family issues and marital therapy, depression and anxiety, particularly among caregivers. During all of these years, I have raised three children and I enjoy Jazzercise, ballroom dancing, and attending any cultural event involving live theater. Alvin Ailey dance company is my favorite!

Where did you grow up?

I was born in New York City and moved to San Francisco at the age of 12. I feel like I got to experience the best of both coasts! My parents were theater, ballet, and opera fans and we always had subscription seats as well as being frequent visitors to museums of all sorts. I trained to be a professional ballet dancer and my first job was dancing in the Nutcracker at the San Francisco Opera House every Christmas.

Why did you choose to study at Wayne State University?

I chose WSU for graduate school because their clinical psychology program has such an excellent reputation as well as its urban mission and outreach. I had a friend on the faculty of University of Michigan who urged me to apply there but I preferred WSU because of its diversity. After living in the Detroit area for the past 22 years, I feel committed to helping to make Detroit’s renaissance a reality. This is a wonderful city!

What led you to psychology?

I decided to become a psychologist when I was 13 years old and I read “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” but as a young woman, I balked at the many years of graduate training required. I worked in technical writing and technical support in Silicon Valley when I lived in California. The 80s were a big boon time in the computer industry and jobs were so plentiful. After my husband accepted a transfer to Michigan, our lifestyle changed and I felt that I had more room to choose what I wanted to do rather than focus on the financial needs of the family. I was able to finally begin my graduate studies in psychology when I was almost forty years old and all of my children were in school.

How did you end up in aging?

A desire to work with older folks and understand the aging process through research and clinical training led me to the IOG. I am here to contribute in any way I can to the seniors of Detroit. I love interacting with the volunteers and workers of the Healthier Black Elders Center, doing analyses of research data to learn about aging, giving presentations to enhance the health of body and mind to Detroit seniors and professionals who work with them, and engaging seniors one-on-one in memory exercises and interviews for data collection. What I love most about my job is the variety of opportunities!

To learn  more about Lisa click here.

To learn more about the IOG click here.


Jul 2 / Andrew Bender

Aging Brains and Minds

andrew benderI am a recent graduate of the Wayne State University Department of Psychology’s Ph.D. program in behavioral and cognitive neuroscience, and of the Institute of Gerontology’s pre-doctoral training program. My research has focused on changes in brain structure and cognitive abilities that occur over the adult life span in healthy adults. We measure brain structure using different types of MRI scans, and we assess cognitive abilities using a variety of different tests of memory, attention, or reasoning. We know that some regions in the brain shrink over time, even in healthy people. However, not all parts of the brain show the same vulnerability to atrophy, and some regions seem to shrink more or to start declining earlier in life than others. In addition, this shrinkage appears to be related to changes in attention and memory. We also know that a host of different disorders ranging from increases in blood pressure or blood glucose levels to different genetic markers can exacerbate these declines. The reality is that age-related changes in the brain and mental abilities are very complex. We are currently trying to better understand how genes may interact with health and lifestyle factors to be either protective or to make people more vulnerable to this decline.

As we all get older, we tend to notice certain things – our memory is not as good as it used to be, or we are slower mentally and physically. Awareness of these changes can be alarming, even if it is not an indication of pronounced problems like dementia. In response to this growing awareness, we are willing to try anything that might possibly stop or reverse these declines in advancing age. We have seen a multitude of products that claim to undo the negative effects of aging. These range from ‘brain training’ software and smartphone apps to vitamins and supplements. Unfortunately, these claims are often based on limited research or from findings from studies using mice or rats that are not substantiated in humans.

Most people have heard the expression, “Correlation is not causation.” This simply means that although two things are related, one does not cause the other. For example, just because increases in homelessness are associated with higher crime rates, does not mean that increased crime is because of homeless people – both tend to increase when the economy is poor. Those selling anti-aging products capitalize on our lack of understanding of this very phenomenon. Similarly, the next time you see an ad or hear a friend talk about how taking a supplement of wahoo-berry extract is associated with better memory, it is important to ask “But does it actually cause memory to improve?” Here’s a link to a site with some more great examples of false or “spurious” correlations:

By now, you may be asking yourself, “If the claims made by all those anti-aging products might be misleading, then is there anything we can do?” Fortunately, there are some things that have been shown to be particularly helpful to limit the effects of age on our brains and cognition. Unfortunately, they actually require effort, and may require some lifestyle changes as well, and many people struggle making such changes. The biggest protective factor is cardiovascular fitness. The brain is packed with blood vessels, and anything that affects the vascular system can affect the brain. There is also some strong evidence that a large part of the effects of Alzheimer’s disease is related to the impact of the disease on the brain’s vascular system. In addition to physical exercise, cognitive and social engagement and learning new skills seem to be more protective than playing brain training games. Learning a new language, or learning how to dance, how to use digital photography or other skills that integrate social, cognitive, and physical systems seem particularly promising approaches in combatting the effects of age.

In addition to these new activities, it is extremely important for those with chronic conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes to closely monitor their health and to take prescribed medications to keep these in check. Stress is another factor that can negatively affect our brains and cognitive abilities. Because of this, activities like yoga, mindfulness and meditation can help to reduce the stress hormones in our bodies and limit the negative effects on our brains.

Before you go out and plunk down your hard-earned money on products claiming to undo the effects of age, go for a walk, visit with friends, learn a new skill – it will serve you far better.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Wayne State University, the Institute of Gerontology, its employees, directors or programs.

Jun 16 / Carrie Leach

A Focus on our Lifespan Cognitive Neuroscience Program

Our spring newsletter has released with a focus on cognitive neuroscience. Our Editor Cheryl Deep, MA shares details from the Paul B. Baltes International Conference on Lifespan Cognitive Neuroscience that resulted in a special journal section of the Neuroscience & Behavioral Reviews journal on neural and cognitive plasticity. The newsletter also highlights the dissertation defense of former IOG student and newly robed Dr. Andrew Bender titled, Changes in Cerebral White Matter, Vascular Risk and Cognition Across the Lifespan. Read on to learn more about awards, events and our partners.

spring newsletter 2014