The card sharks of Laguna Woods, an Orange County, CA, retirement community, can’t even play bridge in peace. They’re part of the world’s largest decades-long study of health and mental acuity in the elderly. Begun by University of Southern California researchers in 1981, the 90+ Study has tracked more than 14,000 people aged 65 and older — the first group “large enough to provide a glimpse into the lucid brain at the furthest reach of human life,” as Benedict Carey wrote in the New York Times. Scientists are keenly interested in what in their genes or routines has kept these 90-plus-year-olds going without a trace of dementia.
One scary finding is that making it to 90 without dementia doesn’t get you home free; the odds continues to increase. But some people with brains full of Alzheimer’s-type plaque remain lucid, as other studies have noted. Researchers think a gene variant called APOE2 may confer protection. (Genetic testing and autopsies are bonuses of participating.)
A broader finding is that dementia may be less of a risk for people who devote significant time every day — three hours and more — to a mentally engrossing activity. Like, say, playing bridge. Check out the video if you think Ruth Cumming, 92, is exaggerating when she says, “We play for blood.” What researchers are trying to figure out is whether people like Cumming play cards because they have all their marbles or have all their marbles because they play bridge. Or read, or do word puzzles, or master new subjects. What’s cause and what’s correlation?
One thing that’s clear is that being part of a social network, whether bridge players or birdwatchers, is a crucial component of aging well. When George Vaillant, the chief scientist of the longest-running longitudinal study of mental and physical well-being in history, was asked what he’d learned from the Grant Study, he replied, “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”