Staying Mentally Alert


Many casual observers fall into the trap of believing that confusion (and, indeed, dementia) is the normal result of the aging process. It should not (but does) require repeating that mental acuity continues throughout most of our lives.

An ongoing study of elderly nuns conducted by the University of Kentucky is helping to shed some new light on the normal aging process in the human brain. Nearly 700 members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame have given researchers full access to their medical records and agreed to donate their brains for autopsy upon death. Some of the early study results are interesting and provocative.

One of the more interesting individual study participants died at the age of 102. She was notable for her full mental command right up to her death, yet researchers were surprised to find that her brain exhibited all the physical symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers’ initial conclusion: her mental functioning remained intact by virtue of her high educational level and regular mental exercise.

Similar conclusions have been drawn from another study conducted by Penn State University’s Gerontology Center on patients who had been followed for fourteen years. In that project, 70 and 80-year-old patients were given tutoring sessions and retested on spatial skills, inductive reasoning, vocabulary and number skills. Two-thirds improved their mental functioning; forty percent returned to the level of functioning they had demonstrated fourteen years earlier.

The clear message sent by these and other similar studies is that mental workouts are good for the elderly. Conversely, inactive pastimes (such as passive television viewing) should be seen as contributing to, and perhaps even as causing, the mental decline of the elderly. As Dr. David Snowdon, director of the University of Kentucky study, says: “People go to the gym and work on their muscles and bones, but what about the brain?”

Inflation in Medicine

The federal government has just released figures for 1993 medical costs. The bad news: inflation in medical costs continues to exceed the general cost of living increases. The good news: the inflation in medical costs was the lowest in seven years.

The average medical bill for an American in 1993 totalled $3,299. That was only $205 (or 7.8%) more than the 1992 figure.

Medical costs consumed one-seventh of Americans’ income in 1993. The health care share of the gross domestic product increased from 13.6% in 1992 to 13.9%.

Still unclear is the reason for the decrease in growth of medical costs. Some health-care experts theorize that discussion of health care reform, even though it did not result in legislative changes, has triggered an industry restructuring.

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