The Amazing Cultural Gulf Between Young and Old

Dr. Bill Thomas Does My Work For Me

category_bug_journal2.gif Not long ago, an announcement of a new study from Cambridge Journals about amazingly young-functioning memory and cognition discovered in some 80-year-olds dropped into my inbox.

I was busy so I skimmed the report and set it aside for a more careful reading later. But a tick in the back of my mind just would not shut up – it kept saying there was something off about the report and when I got around to a closer reading, I was convinced the study did not hold water.

But wait, wait, wait, I reminded myself. The three researchers are associated with Northwestern University Chicago, they know all about things like neuropsychology, have strings of letters behind their names and their article was peer-reviewed before publication in Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.

I, on the other hand, hold a high school diploma; who am I to question their paper.

So it went onto a to-do stack on my desk meaning that I might get around to some comparative research, or maybe not. But then, I saw a blog post from my old friend, geriatrician Bill Thomas.

If you've been hanging out at TGB for any length of time, you know that Bill wrote what I believe is the best book ever on aging, What Are Old People For?. It is one of a handful of books I regularly consult on issues of aging.

Bill is also the founder of a pioneering philosophy and concept of more compassionate long term care for elders called the Eden Alternative and most recently, he published a novel, Tribes of Eden, a fast-paced, thriller that relies on the bonds between youth and elders to save the day.

Okay, way too much background. By the time I ran across Bill's blog post about the same study, I had noticed that it – the study – was getting a lot of play in the mainstream press so it might be important for me to deal with it here at TGB.

It was still giving me heartburn and I'd not yet figured out why I did not believe it when the first two sentences of Bill's post about the study caught my eye:

”I would, normally, expect better from the people at Cambridge Journals. However this write up sent me over the edge.”

The general premise of the study is this:

”Researchers who studied the group have dubbed them ‘SuperAgers’ because of their brain’s ability to keep the aging process at bay. The research team say their findings prove that loss of our little grey cells is not necessarily an unavoidable part of aging. The results may have implications for the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.”

As I said in the title up there at the top, Bill has done my work for me. Statement by statement, he takes apart the report of the study he read along with the study itself:

“'SuperAgers' — really? And this: 'The research team say their findings prove that loss of our little grey cells is not necessarily an unavoidable part of aging.' I seriously doubt that the actual researchers said anything like this in the actual study. This is claptrap.”

Another assumption from the study:

”In a finding the researchers describe as ‘remarkable’, the SuperAgers emerged from the tests with brain power akin to those in the 50-65 age range and significantly better than their peers in their eighties.”

Bill's response:

”There is a simple common understanding in the field of aging that explains this — the term is 'pleiotropy.' Guess what, I can replicate this result with a wide variety of other physical and mental attributes.

“As we get older we are less and less like our peers in every way. Older people are a very diverse population and therefore it is easy to select a group of older people who, in some ways, resemble younger people.”

And further on, Bill concluded that “the study proves nothing.”

If not for Bill, I was going to need to do a whole lot of research - first, to figure out why I had a feeling something was wrong with the study; then to find out what that is; and then how to write it up fairly. Whew!

Can you hear me shouting, “Thank you, Bill?”

There is a whole lot of “claptrap” out there about aging, even in academic circles. And it's deeply important for us to read critically – and here's another good idea: let Dr. Bill Thomas help us out.

Please go read his whole blog post.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Stroppy: Cramps


Thank you. I will as soon as I get home from swimming, volunteering, and getting my act together. :)

Studies come and studies go making the intellectuals feel like they have discovered a startling new trend or fact.

Unless they are based on provable scientific fact I have learned to ignore most of them and I just keep putting one foot in front of the other the way I always have.

Elders are a diverse as youth and no group can be put in a neat little box.

I couldn't agree more, Darlene, but sometimes it is not so easy, for people like me without professional knowledge, to know when a studies are factual and useful and which are not.

And that is when I am grateful to the the likes of Bill Thomas to help us sort it out, and it is particularly important when a paper, such as this one did, gets wide distribution in the mainstream media without reporters questioning it or checking facts.

Nice post Ronni! I can take credit for sharing this study with Bill. When it popped into my inbox I had the exact same reaction as you -- I knew it just didn't hold water, but even with my journalism experience I wasn't sure how to tear it apart. So I sent it to Bill :)

Can you hear me shouting, "Thank you, Ronni"? Now I am off to order Bill's books and to read the blog post.

I am fairly new to your blog so had not heard about Bill Thomas or his books. I plan to read them. thanks!

I agree with you and Bill; all this does is state there are differences in people as they age. Is this something we didn't realize? With that all said however, I think that any investigation into what contributes to successful aging is incredibly valuable, and will hopefully lead to clues that can turn the awful tide of Alzheimer's in this country. I'm personally convinced it has mostly to do with diet and the prevalence of highly processed foods in the late 1940's and early 50's. If 'partially hydrogenated vegetable oil' and 'high fructose corn syrup' were so benign, why are all the food manufacturer's jerking it out of their products?

Thank you for posting this, Ronni! I am a fan of Dr. Bill Thomas and the Eden Alternative.
Good job, like always!!

The article is indeed impressive in its authoritative presentation. Had I not read your and Dr. Thomas' side to this I would have easily taken this as gospel. Thanks again for being on top of such information.

Important to start my day with your link to Dr. Bill's article. We need both your and his validation about our differences as we age. Personally, like many others pushing 80, being "super" anything is not the goal.

Another bullseye! Thanks. I've just downloaded the first of his books for me to read to my kindle.

I long ago learned reports summarizing research studies should be taken with a grain of salt. All too often the study itself may not be reliable, much less the summary conclusions -- the sample studied may be too small, and/or many other critical factors not controlled.

Then, the press gets in on trying to find a sensational headline to sell what they've written and get people to read it, so their summary gives the whole works an added twist. Eventually, some astute readers and writers typically put everything in the proper perspective for those of us who don't always have, or take the time to read the actual study ourselves.

That's one thing I've valued about TGB -- is the dedication to actual fact, and incorporating others writings here who do the same, such as Dr. Bill, even some who comment only here.

Years ago, I recall some colleagues and I deciding on a whim to attend a nearby highly regarded graduate school psychology dept. conference -- a presentation of research studies, including one in particular about hearing loss that intrigued us since our profession presented therapy services to such individuals of all ages.

When we introduced ourselves and our profession they graciously invited us to attend. We expected to be duly impressed with their research findings and were strongly enthusiastic about the value of multidisciplinary collaborations -- learning from each other.

We listened incredulously as the new young but older doctoral graduate began his presentation by describing the sample he had used which was a group of young hearing children he had somehow temporarily non-injuriously caused to be non-hearing. This sample was the basis of his conclusions about children with hearing loss since birth.

When we heard this, our mouths dropped open as we glanced incredulously at one another, knowing immediately his study was invalid to be assessing what he believed he was researching. The fallacy of his method was common knowledge professionally, possibly even to the common sense thinking of lay people. What boggled our minds as we sat in this huge auditorium surrounded by so many astute highly degreed, even famous, academics was that no supervisory counselor or others who would have been involved in reviewing and approving his process in the years along the way had recognized this gross error.

We restrained ourselves from disruptively standing up and questioning these people when no one else seemed to be alarmed. By the time he finished, we noticed a slight stirring and growing mumbled sound coming from an individual toward the back in the room's center below our upper side box seats. He finally spoke asking a rather vague nonconfrontive question followed by the presenter being quickly moved from the stage.

Since we were guests, we were relieved someone in their profession had finally noted this gross error so we would not feel compelled to question our hosts. I never knew what happened after that since we hadn't actually known anyone there.

I do know, as recent graduates in our own profession, we came away with a feeling of compassion for that poor presenter, also an even greater realization of the importance of questioning research study findings, and also those that write about them.

Oh yes, I might add, one belief the three of us shared in common was that the more we had learned and were learning, the more we realized how little we knew, how much more there was to know -- that maybe we didn't even know what we didn't know. Also, we felt a bit more confident -- that maybe -- just maybe -- we knew a little more than we sometimes wondered if we knew.

Greetings! What's your point of view on who is your blog's average reader?

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