On October 4th, in Covid-19 time, typical showers were falling in London but under atypical conditions, a handful of elite runners set off on the rescheduled 2020 London marathon. Between the constraints of social distancing and the new “rule of six,” the normal hordes of cheering crowds and amateur runners were absent on the cordoned off streets. Regardless, some 45,000 diehards across the UK were running in personal, virtual marathons.

One of them was 87-year-old Ken Jones. He hit the road and completed his 40th London marathon, uniquely coinciding with the 40 years since the first London marathon was staged in 1981. Ken represents someone Malcolm Gladwell would tell you was an outlier, “one of those exceptional people who operate at the extreme outer edges of what is statistically plausible.”

And as people live longer, we are going to see many more outliers: physical and cognitive.

A noteworthy, inspiring study just came out of the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. Over the past 28 years, researchers have been comparing people who turned 75 and 80 years old in 1989 and 1990 with their 2017 and 2018 counterparts. They’ve teased out that that increased life expectancy, in the recent cohort, has been accompanied by an increased number of years with greater, functional abilities. Both mental and physical muscles have been carried into their longer lives! This was particularly pronounced in the later cohort women and interestingly enough, attributed to an increased number of females out of the home and into the workforce. Grrrl power!

Because this research took place in Finland and the later cohort had obviously lived in a greatly improved world with respect to nutrition, health care, education and work, making sweeping generalizations is unrealistic. However, this notable study, comparing performance-based maximum measures in different historical times, suggests that the broader societal impacts of these results are still considerable. Aging 2.0’s recent newsletter has reiterated “that physical inactivity is one of the strongest predictors of physical disability in older adults.”

And in Norway, in another capacity-stretching exercise, Motitech, has completed their third online championship with this novel program. Using static exercise bikes, along with video and sound, Road World for Seniors gets older folks, as well as people with dementia, to compete in a global sporting event – including residents in long-term care facilities. This year there were 129 teams and over 3K cyclists from 7 countries. What an excellent reminder that we’d better start focusing on abilities rather than disabilities and on opportunities for joy-filled connections throughout our lives.

Initiatives like Motitech’s create highly interactive, high-quality social relationships combined with physical activity – both of which are strong predictors of well-being. The Stanford Center on Longevity Sightlines Project reports that even older adults with the same Alzheimer’s pathology, show lower cognitive declines when they have larger social networks.

The cognitive decline issue remains quite misunderstood and it is not equally distributed. Everyone’s brain begins to shrink after about age 25, meaning that we are all mildly cognitive impaired as we proceed through adulthood. That said, in the Finnish study, the longer time one is in education was the most important underlying factor behind improved cognitive performance.

This evidence supports the Modern Elder Academy’s call to swap the notion of lifelong learning with “Long Life Learning,” across the whole life course – not just the first part. Gerontology pioneer Dr. Gene D. Cohen encouraged “intellectual sweating.” He moved the paradigm from focusing on ageing problems to consideration of future potential and capacity for intellectual growth with age.

The path is clear, the evidence mounting. Making a conscious effort to build physical and mental muscle are gifts you give to yourself. There’s never been a better way to stay alive.

Originally posted in Modern Elder Academy: WISDOM WELL, 10/10/20