Many of us fear the inevitable process of aging. We overlook the positive aspects of growing older, focusing on the negatives we observe as our parents and grandparents become less mobile and more gray-haired. Keynote speaker Dr. Marc Agronin mentioned those negative perceptions at FHSS‘s 2017 Gerontology Conference. He reminded us that most people avoid making jokes about race, religion, and gender, but old age is usually free game.
In this three-minute highlight video, he argues, though, that decreased independence does not devalue age, and there is a lot to be said for continuing to shape a positive life in old age.
This post is thirty-third in a series of videos available in our new BYU Social Sciences YouTube channel! The channel contains tidbits of many of our most popular lectures and useful, succinct, research-backed advice on relationship, political, religious, media, and financial issues. Follow us there to stay up-to-date on wisdom that will help you and your family live better lives.
Gerotranscendence is a big word that simply refers to the way people’s perspectives shift as they age. Many individuals become more spiritual, and they often care more deeply about religion and life’s big questions. Dr. Marc E. Agronin, the keynote speaker at BYU’s 2017 Gerontology Conference, said older individuals who pray, attend church, and engage in religious activities tend to live longer. They are less likely to experience depression, and they often enjoy many other health benefits.
You can watch some of the highlights of Dr. Agronin’s keynote address in the video below. And of course, keep following our blog to learn more about gerontology — its ups, its downs, and everything in between.
This post is thirty-second in a series of videos available in our new BYU Social Sciences YouTube channel! The channel contains tidbits of many of our most popular lectures and useful, succinct, research-backed advice on relationship, political, religious, media, and financial issues. Follow us there to stay up-to-date on wisdom that will help you and your family live better lives.
In general, people think of aging as a bad thing. When you age, you get wrinkles, become less mobile, and your brain literally shrinks in size. But there’s a different, better way to think about aging, says Dr. Mark E. Agronin, a presenter at BYU’s 2017 Gerontology Conference. In this brief video, Dr. Agronin suggests that when areas of the brain become less separated and begin to “mesh together” when individuals age, “instead of using just one part of the brain, we can use many parts of the brain,” a great strength that allows people to
develop mental resilience and the ability to rebalance one’s perspectives over time and deal with adversity.
increase creativity that can be used to overcome adversity and strengthen relationships.
This post is part of a series of videos available on our new BYU Social Sciences YouTube channel! The channel contains tidbits of many of our most popular lectures and useful, succinct, research-backed advice on relationship, political, religious, media, and financial issues. Follow us there to stay up-to-date on wisdom that will help you and your family live better lives.
Not getting enough sleep can cause problems for anyone, but one would think that aging parents with adult children would be, to some extent, exempt from that particular problem. However, a recent study published by BYU Gerontology professor Jeremy Yorgason found that parents continue to worry about their children, even to the point that it affects their sleep.
“The topic of sleep is receiving more and more attention these days as biological factors are linked with many other aspects of life, including social factors,” Yorgason said. “Parents don’t really ever stop being parents in many ways, and so feeling stress about their children will likely have an impact on their physical and emotional processes (which may show up in sleep). Of the 186 heterosexual married, remarried, or cohabiting couples interviewed, only 10% of husbands age 40 to 60, and 6% of wives reported not worrying at all about their children.” They found that husbands’ worrying more frequently about their adult children was associated with less sleep for husbands, but not for wives. They also found that when husbands provided more frequent support to adult children, it was often more need-based than it was for mothers. “Support may be more taxing for fathers, making it more difficult for husbands to get a sufficient amount of sleep as a result of the time and energy demands related to giving such support,” they said.
Such findings may be highly relevant to those adult children, who may still find themselves needing their aging parents, even as they take care of their own younger children. “On the one hand,” Yorgason posits, “such support can be viewed as a benefit for adult children. As support sometimes reflects [the] needs of adult children, the concerns the parents have around the child’s need might be the source of less sleep. That is, adult children may be able to count on middle-aged and older parents to be available for support during difficult times (Merz, Consedine, Schulze, & Schuengel, 2009). On the other hand, because poor sleep quality is linked with physical and mental distress (Meerlo, Sgoifo, & Suchecki, 2008; Smagula, Stone, Fabio, & Cauley, 2016), such caring by older parents may take a physical and psychological toll.”
Adult children might be both heartened and worried by these results. At the least, they can inform their interactions with their aging parents so that their sleep patterns are taken into account. Yorgason e has a study in the process of publication which found that sleep affects marital interactions because a lack of sleep puts a spouse in a negative mood. Yorgason is also writing up how sleep may affect communication and problem solving within a marriage.
Jeremy B. Yorgason is an Associate Professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. He received his PhD from Virginia Tech in marriage and family therapy. He also completed a graduate gerontology certificate at Kansas State University, and was a post-doctoral fellow at the Gerontology Center of Penn State University, with an emphasis in mental health and aging. Dr. Yorgason is a member of the Gerontology Program faculty at BYU. His research interests are in the area of later life family relationships, with a specific focus on health and marriage. His current research efforts focus on later life couple relationships in context of the effects of daily health stressors, managing multiple chronic illnesses, and on grandparent/grandchild relationships. He is also starting the Couple Relationships and Transitions Experiences study (CREATE), which explores how recently married couples manage minor and major life transitions.
“There is no ‘cure’ for aging, only ways to grow stronger and live a fulfilling life,” said Dr. Marc E. Argonin at a recent Gerontology conference presentation. “The attitude makes an enormous difference.” The better the attitude, the better the brain. How well your brain functions depends on the connections that have been formed in your brain. The more connected you are, the stronger your brain is, particularly in these three ways, or as Dr. Argonin called them, “pillars:”
Reserve: your protective base of skills and attributes
Resilience: your ability to rebalance in the face of change
Reinvention: your effort to develop creative solutions
Dr. Argonin added that the elderly brain tends to focus more on the positive. Because of their age, older people tend not to put things off and may have a broader, more altruistic, world perspective. Thus, they tend to be wiser, which is another key attribute of a healthy older brain, according to the psychiatrist. He defined that wisdom as multifaceted and cultural, allowing individuals to apply experiences. He listed five different types of wise people:
Curator: possessing empathy and caring for others and for cultural relics or rituals
Creator: possessing the talents of an artist, builder, or innovator
Seer: possessing spirituality, acceptance, and transcendence
How do we get to this “better older brain?” Dr. Argonin advised the obvious: exercise, physical and mental. However, he said, nobody knows what truly causes people to live longer, and there are no miracle pills or fountains of youth. While there is cognitive impairment associated with age, there are traits and skills we can learn that will combat these impairments. He, like Robert Arking, defines aging as “a ‘time-dependent series of cumulative, progressive, intrinsic, and positive cognitive, emotional, and behavioral changes that usually begin to manifest themselves at mid-life and eventually culminate in increased well-being.” And, like the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, he believes that age is opportunity no less/Than youth itself, though in another dress,/And as the evening twilight fades away/The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”
His full presentation, as well as those of the other presenters at the conference, can be viewed here.
The connection between gut microbiota and obesity that recent research has revealed is exciting, but obesity is perhaps only the tip of the iceberg of physical and mental conditions that gut microbiota influence. Dr. Laura C. Bridgewater, professor of Microbiology and Molecular Biology in BYU’s College of Life Sciences and a presenter at ourrecent gerontology conference, explained that the microbes and bacteria that live in our guts have also been shown to be connected to anxiety.
From Bold to Timid
“There’s good evidence in mice that gut bacteria can directly impact anxiety,” Bridgewater said. Researchers who swapped gut microbiota between bold mice and timid mice found that, over time, their personalities changed. They put mice on a platform and timed how long it took them to get down. After the gut microbiota transfer, the bold mice became more afraid and took longer to get down, while the timid mice got down much faster.
During a sabbatical at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Dr. Bridgewater worked with Professor Liping Zhao, a leading researcher in gut microbiota. “His lab had worked on gut microbiota, obesity, heart disease and metabolic syndrome,” said Bridgewater. “They hadn’t done any behavioral studies before…so when I came, we started working on this question [of gut microbiota and its link to anxiety] and we got some pretty interesting results.”
Bridgewater and her colleagues were interested in seeing the effects of diet, stress and gender. They tested these effects on mice. The research lasted for 136 days. At specific checkpoints throughout that time, the researchers tested for three things:
the composition of the gut microbiota
The latter two were measured through behavioral testing. The testing for
anxiety included an open field test and an elevated plus maze, like the one above.
Movements of the mice were digitally tracked and analyzed. More anxiety was reflected by increased time spent in the walled arms of the maze and on the outer edges of the open field test (not in the open arms and exposed middle). This was determined because when mice were given anti-anxiety drugs, they spent more time in the dangerous areas of the maze and in the middle of the open field test.
Does Diet or Gender Have Anything to do With It?
At day zero, initial testing was done and recorded. Afterwards, the mice were placed on two different diets. Half of the mice were put on a high fat diet (60% fat), while the other half ate a normal chow diet. Testing was completed again at day 81. The researchers made an interesting observation at this point:
The high fat diet increased anxiety in males, but not in females. The diet seemed to have very little impact or no impact on the female’s anxiety levels.
The researchers then added the variable of stress. The mice were exposed to chronic unpredictable mild stress every day for two and a half weeks. This included things like predator sounds, damp bedding, lights on all night, lights off all day, etc. After another round of behavioral testing, the researchers observed that:
After the stress, the females showed a lot more anxiety, but the male’s patterns hadn’t changed much from the previous round of testing.
The researchers also found that male activity levels only decreased from the high fat diet, not the stress, whereas females decreased activity based on the stress, not the diet.
Impact on the Gut Microbiota
They also found that diet made the biggest difference in the gut microbiota. Seeing as it affected the behavior of each gender differently, Bridgewater observed, “There is something inherently different about males and females that are on the same diet and experiencing the same thing.”
After stress, the composition of the female gut microbiota looked more like the mice that had been on the high fat diet all along. At day zero, the gut microbiota of all the female mice were very similar. By day 81, there was a dramatic difference between gut microbiota of mice on the normal chow diet compared to the high fat diet. On day 136, after the stress, the difference between the groups decreased and they began to resemble each other again. “You don’t see that in the male group after the stress. Their gut microbiota didn’t change very much after the stress,” Bridgewater said.
The researchers came away with this understanding: when it comes to increased anxiety, females seem to be more vulnerable to the stress, but resistant to the high fat diet. The males are just the opposite.
The Biology Behind It
When you look at the biology behind it, the connection isn’t actually that surprising, Bridgewater explained. A few studies have shown that gut bacteria can influence the brain by producing neurotransmitters such as GABA, norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine. In addition, the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the human body, connects the brain to the digestive tract.
The implications of the findings made by Doctors Bridgewater and Zhao, as well as other corroborative studies are exciting, as other researchers begin to investigate the connection in humans and the effect of pre- and pro-biotics.
Weight gain and metabolic syndrome are not a rite of passage, though some people seem to think they just come with the territory of getting older. Dr. Laura C. Bridgewater, professor of microbiology and molecular biology at BYU, asks: “How did we come to think that’s a normal way to age? Because it’s really not.”
While there is some evidence that obesity is genetic, it’s not enough to explain it entirely, says Bridgewater. “You look at families and think ‘okay, it runs in the family.’ There is a genetic component, but on the other hand, people who live together often share dietary habits and exercise habits.”
Lack of willpower can’t be the sole culprit either. “We all know people who seem to live on junk food and never gain weight,” she said. There is one aspect, however, that seems to play a crucial role in obesity and overall health: gut microbiota.
What is Gut Microbiota?
Gut microbiota is made up of all the microbes that live in the gut, with bacteria being the most abundant, explains Bridgwater. Healthy gut microbiota can do wonders for our bodies: they make vitamins, protect us from infection, regulate our metabolism, and harvest calories and nutrients from foods that are otherwise indigestible. Diversity in the gut microbiota makes the whole system more resilient. The more diverse the microbiota, the more good it can do.
Gut Microbiota in Research
“The evidence [that] gut microbiota [are related]…to obesity is very strong,” said Bridgewater. Researchers who transferred gut microbiota from obese mice to lean mice found that, over time, the mice who had received the gut microbiota from the obese donors ended up obese. Lean mice who received gut microbiota from lean donors stayed lean.
Researchers in Malawi found that the same process works with human microbiota. They took gut microbiota from severely malnourished children and from healthy children and transferred them into germ free mice. All of the mice were then fed a typical Malawian diet of roots and grains. The mice with the gut microbiota from the malnourished children stayed malnourished and the mice with the gut microbiota from the healthy children stayed healthy. Although they were eating the same thing, the gut microbiota from the malnourished children couldn’t harvest all the nutrients from the diet.
Research at BYU and U of U
Bridgewater has been involved in an ongoing study with colleagues from the University of Utah and BYU. The study, which is being funded by the BYU Gerontology Program, looks at how diet affects the gut microbiota and, by extension, overall health. The researchers started with two groups of mice. Each group was composed of both mutant mice with a high metabolic rate and wild mice. They fed each group a specific diet for six months.
Group one was fed a western style diet. It was composed of 40% fat, 43% simple carbohydrates, and 17% protein. Group two was fed normal mouse chow, which was plant-based and consisted mostly of corn, grains, soybeans, etc. The researchers tested the mice monthly to collect gut bacteria samples and check for diabetes.
After six months, Bridgewater and her fellow researchers observed that all the mice on the western-style diet had gained weight, whether or not they had a high metabolic rate, while the majority of the mice on the normal chow diet had stayed at a healthy weight. They also found a striking trend: all of the mice on the western-style diet had less diversity in their gut microbiota. Some had also developed diabetes.
Eating a Western Diet is Risky
Eating a western style diet is risky, says Bridgewater. While not all the mice on the western- style diet in the study developed diabetes, some did. It just depended on how their gut microbiota changed. All the mice on the western style diet lost diversity in their gut microbiota, making them more vulnerable to other illnesses and diseases.
While gut microbiota, genes, and diet all have an impact on obesity, some of those contributors also impact each other. There is evidence that gut microbiota influence diet by causing cravings, says Bridgewater. Certain bacteria want a certain type of nutrients. For example, if your gut microbiota is made up of a kind of bacteria that can thrive on dietary fats, they can make you crave foods that are high in fat. Eating that food will keep the bacteria happy, but according to Bridgewater, “these might not be the kind of bacteria you want growing.”
What You Can Do
According to Bridgewater, the best thing you can do to support a healthy gut microbiota is to feed it good food. Eating plant foods that provide a lot of plant fiber, like vegetables and grains, is really important. This fiber is indigestible to us, but our gut microbiota can digest it. The healthy microbiota use this fiber to produce metabolites that help us. A lot of things, including genes, impact our gut microbiota, says Bridgewater, but research shows that “we do have some control over what grows in our gut.”
Dr. Bridgewater is a professor of Microbiology and Molecular Biology in BYU’s College of Life Sciences. She served as chair of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Biology from 2011 to 2014. She holds a PhD in Genetics from George Washington University and a BS in Microbiology from BYU
“When we talk about cognitive aging, we focus on the decline part but late life is a time of gains and losses,” Marsiske said at the 26th annual Russell B. Clark Gerontology Conference. “We have areas of functioning that decline and we have areas that function and stay strong. There are losses but benefits of experience. For example, vocabulary skills grow.”
As an individual ages, their cognitive functions deteriorate. Symptoms of this deterioration include memory loss, trouble planning or problem solving, and social withdrawal. Brain diseases like Alzheimers have similar patterns of dementia. Dr. Marsiske spoke about “an arsenal” to combat the consequences of the aging process, specific solutions to keep cognition strong later in life:
1. Continue your education: learn to play the piano, or take an independent study class.
2. Play video games:His research demonstrates that older adults experience “flow,” an optimal psychological state said to occur when people are able to meet the challenges of a given task or activity with appropriate skills and accordingly feel a sense of well-being, mastery, and heightened self-esteem, by playing video games. Higher levels of engagement are experienced with games that provide clear goals and immediate feedback to players.
3. Spot train your brain: seek to understand your daily medication dosing patterns or use a bus schedule to plan a trip.
4. Combat negative moods: be familiar with the symptoms of depression or anxiety, identify when you are experiencing them, and keep handy those things that make you happy.
5. Engage: participate in life, as opposed to just “being on a rocking chair.” See what opportunities your local senior, recreation, or community center offer.
Dementia is a fear for many people all over the world. Research shows that there is an increase in dementia internationally with advancing age. Marsiske says that even though the majority of people will not experience dementia, rates continue to grow. One of the things that causes cognitive aging, he says, is disuse.
Dr. Michael Marsiske is Associate Professor in the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology at the University of Florida. He received his PhD from the Pennsylvania State University in 1992 in Human Development and Family Studies. He followed this with a postdoctoral felllowship in Psychology and Human Development at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Education in Berlin from 1992 to 1995. Prior to joining the University of Florida in 2000, Dr. Marsiske was an Assistant Professor of Gerontology and Psychology at Wayne State University.
Over 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. It is highly likely that you or a loved one knows someone who has been affected. And although Alzheimer’s is quite commonplace among aging individuals, it is not just a symptom of normal aging. It is a progressive, fatal disease. It is one that can potentially be cured or prevented with further research. And while the cure has not yet been found, some BYU FHSS faculty have been gathering data that is promising for the future.
Dr. Jonathan Wisco, associate director of the MRI lab here at BYU, has a special interest in studying the effects of Alzheimer’s disease on the brain – particularly the early stages of the brain degeneration. He’s looking for what he calls the “Holy Grail” of Alzheimer’s research: early indicators of Alzheimer’s disease in brain tissue, and he spoke about this research at our recent gerontology conference.
Many outward expressions of brain degeneration are commonly seen at the beginning stages of several different types of dementias. The problem is that it is virtually impossible to tell which way the brain and body will go from there. Will it be to Parkinson’s, Frontotemporal Dementia, or Alzheimer’s? For the past several years, Wisco has been studying the brain to find what might indicate the track a particular individual is on – and thus aid in the future treatment of that person.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include:
Executive system function deficits
Difficulty planning/solving problems
Difficulty with familiar tasks
Confusion of time and place
New problems with speaking or writing
Inability to retrace steps
Changes in mood and personality
There are also 2 different types of Alzheimer’s:
Familial Alzheimer’s is translated genetically, and it often comes up in the fifth or sixth decade of life, with a quick deterioration of the brain.
Sporadic Alzheimer’s is the most common form of the disease, and it typically begins in the eighth decade of life and beyond.
Before coming to BYU, Wisco knew the symptoms of Alzheimers, those that manifested within the brain as well as those that manifested outside it. He collected a lot of data before coming to BYU. But he didn’t know quite what to do with it all.
“At one point while I was at UCLA my work had stalled. I had no idea how I was going to interpret [some data] I had come up with,” said Wisco. “Then when I arrived here at BYU, Dr. Kauwe from Biology invited a bunch of us faculty who were interested in Alzheimer’s to meet together. Dr. Richard Watt from the Chemistry department was in attendance, he had some data that he couldn’t make sense of, and his data was all over the map, as was mine.” Wisco and Watt did some comparisons and were able to make some links between symptoms that could potentially be predictors of Alzheimer’s disease.
Wisco and Watt have worked together for some time now, and have been able to find some potentially groundbreaking evidence of predictors for Alzheimer’s. “What we didn’t expect to find in our research was that the inflammatory response is probably contributing to signal decay. The pathological response to the disease itself is causing more problems in individuals with Alzheimer’s.”
“The results were exciting to see,” said Wisco. “And we’re curious and anxious to know if this is happening in different parts of the brain that we haven’t yet analyzed.”
Wisco’s research is expected to continue, and they are awaiting further results from their lab research. And so far, “The results look promising.”
“And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.“
BYU’s Gerontology Program is holding its annual Russell B. Clark Gerontology Conference on March 16 and March 17. The program offers presentations from leaders in the field and additional speakers from across the United States.
Michael Marsiske, PhD, an Associate Professor and Associate Chair for Research in the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology at the University of Florida will talk about how computers, treadmills, and video games are the new “arsenal” for late-life brain training. His presentation will be very worthwhile for all disciplines!
The event will also include:
Jonathan Wisco, PhD, an Associate Professor and Director of the Laboratory for Translational Anatomy of Degenerative Disease and Developmental Disorders, College of Life Sciences, Department of Physiology and Developmental Biology, and Neuroscience Center at Brigham Young University, and
Laura Bridgewater, PhD, an Associate Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Biology at Brigham Young University.
Dr. Marsiske will deliver the keynote address on Wednesday evening and Doctors Wisco’s and Bridgewater’s presentations will be deliver Thursday March 17th at 11 a.m.. Event sponsors says the event is for those with any interest in gerontology, or who take care of a senior citizen. All are welcome to attend the event.
The Gerontology program offers both a minor and a certificate qualifying graduates to work with the elderly in many different domains. Explore the Gerontology Program website or visit the gerontology secretary (located with the School of Family Life in 2086 JFSB) for more information.