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Study Finds Many Elderly Keep Mental Youth

February 15, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Many elderly men are at least as mentally able as the average young adult and some - the most gifted - actually scored better on one test at age 80 than they did at age 70, scientists said Friday.

The new studies do not dispute the longstanding belief that, for most people, mental ability declines with age. What they do show is that some men manage to escape that trend.

The studies also provide intriguing clues to how that happens, said Sandra Weintraub, a neuropsychologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

″What distinguishes the top performers from the bottom performers in men over 65 is maintenance of high scores on memory and attention tests,″ she said Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Weintraub’s findings were based on a sophisticated computer test of 1,101 doctors 28-92 years old.

The test measures memory, attention, visual perception, calculation and reasoning, she said.

She and her colleagues found that the top 10 scorers aged 75-92 did as well as the average of men under 35. The average of the 75-92 group was below that of the under 35 group, but she did not report by how much.

In a separate study, Edwin Shneidman of the University of California Los Angeles tested 35 intellectually gifted men at age 70 and again at age 80.

He found that 77 percent of them increased the size of their working vocabularies during their 70s.

Weintraub and Shneidman did not explain why their study did not include women. Shneidman said his results would not necessarily apply to women

Weintraub said her study showed that medical conditions such as high blood pressure, use of prescription drugs or others had no correlation to a subject’s ability to do well on the test.

Top scorers were much more likely to have continued working than were bottom scorers, she said. Some researchers believe that working stimulates maintenance of mental function, but Weintraub disagrees.

″I don’t think it’s ’use it or lose it,‴ she said. She believes the decline in mental ability may come first, ″and if you don’t have it, you can’t continue to work.″

Shneidman’s study was based on the so-called Terman Study of gifted men, begun in 1921 by Lewis Terman, a psychologist at Stanford University.

Terman identified 1,528 gifted children whom he then periodically tested. Some 900 of them are still being studied, Shneidman said.

Shneidman also found that many men in their 70s undergo ″what we can only call a process of maturation″ that represents ″dramatic change from patterns well established over the previous 50 plus years of adult functioning.″ He emphasized that the findings were still preliminary.

Weintraub speculated that the ability of some men to retain mental function might be related to their ability to produce a certain type of brain cell not present at birth.

These neurons, which are rich in an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase, increase with age in normal people and are sharply reduced in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease, she said.

It is not likely that the loss of brain cells is responsible for the decline in some men’s mental abilities, she said. Recent studies show that most death of brain cells occurs before age 18, she said.

″You can’t equate brain loss with cognitive loss,″ she said.

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