The Fountain of Youth is a spring that supposedly restores the youth of anyone who drinks or bathes in its waters. Tales of such a fountain have been recounted across the world for thousands of years, appearing in writings as early as by Herodotus (5th century BCE). So, where is it? Turns out it’s everywhere according to Northwestern University’s SuperAging study—a research project analyzing the brains of people who seem to be resistant to the detrimental memory changes all-too-often associated with aging.
As we age, our brains shrink, which leads to a decline in cognition the older we get. “Atrophy is thought to contribute in part to the moments of forgetfulness we experience with aging," says Emily Rogalski, Ph.D., the director of the study. SuperAgers, however, lose less brain volume—one study found that over the course of 18 months, 'normal' agers lost volume in the cortex (the brain area linked to critical thinking) twice as fast as SuperAgers. In the case of 86-year-old June Scott, her brain is considered younger than she is, with parts of it looking similar to the brains of people in their 50s.
So, what has travel got to do with it? Anecdotally, researchers have found another common thread: “Initial hints suggest SuperAgers tend to be socially active, including volunteering at homeless shelters, participating in church groups, playing cards, reading to young children, leading exercise groups, and of course some, like June Scott, are avid travelers," says Rogalski.
Scott has visited all seven continents, over 87 countries and shows no signs of stopping. She recently returned from Palestine and Israel; before that, she was in Cuba. In December, she slept in a pop-up tent in the world’s largest sand desert, the Arabian Peninsula’s Empty Quarter—often considered one of the least explored places on Earth. Last August, with her family, she hiked sand dunes over 900 feet high, flew over the Skeleton Coast in a tiny plane, and kayaked with seals in Namibia.
Are all SuperAgers world travelers? No. In fact, results from Northwestern University’s SuperAgers studies suggest that the only common denominators among SuperAgers seem to be their amazing memories and youthful brains.
It’s widely known, that sociability is a trait that proves to be crucial to growing old. Strong social connections help fend off problems like depression, known to steal years from a life, but as Rogalski explains, talking is taxing: “Conversations make your brain work.”
Melissa Gartenberg Livney, Psy.D., a geriatric psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, points out that when people travel, they are typically doing so either with a partner, spouse, group of friends, or in some kind of organized fashion. “There’s a built-in sense of community… As people get older and friends’ abilities may not be on par with theirs, traveling in a group format can help you connect with similar people," she notes.
According to Scott, who doesn’t like to repeat trips, her adventures “open her vistas.” It’s a point researchers agree with, as our brains thrive off of newness and challenge. “It was previously thought that we were born with a certain amount of neurons and that number only went down,” Rogalski says. “Now, we’re understanding that might not be the case.”
Neurogenesis—the formation of new neurons—is driven, in part, by new and novel experiences. “When you go to Iran, Dubai, India, or China and then read about these places in the news, everything makes more sense,” says Scott. “In a three-week trip, I know I don't have the whole story, but I have more than I did.”
Though Scott admits traveling the globe well into her 80s isn’t without its challenges. “Sometimes I think, ‘Have I bit off more than I can chew?’” she says. “You have to be flexible and lug your luggage through airports and walk miles and miles and take buses or trains.” But the benefits outweigh the hardships: “Once you arrive, it makes up for everything. I believe in travel. I think more and more people should do it so we can be ambassadors for the world we live in.”
Travel may just be the Fountain of Youth.
Ponce de Leon searched the world, June Scott is collecting her passport stamps.
What about you?
*Thanks to Ellen Newman for sharing this info
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