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.”
”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