From the Harvard Medical School’s Healthbeat newsletter:

“It's impossible to deny that things change as we age. Among other things, reaction times, sensory-motor skills, and fine coordination tend to decline as we gain in years. At the same time, though, added years provide added experience.

“The question is, can experience, knowledge, and judgment compensate for subtle mental and motor changes? Two very different studies suggest that seniority does have its compensations.

Senior pilots“The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires all commercial airline pilots to retire at age 65. However, general aviation pilots do not face a similar maximum flying age. Is it safe for older pilots to take command in the cockpit?

“To find out, researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine studied 118 general aviation pilots between the ages of 40 and 69; most were men. Each volunteer was checked annually for three consecutive years. The evaluations included a battery of cognitive function tests and five tests of flying ability and performance in a computerized flight simulator.

“The older pilots scored lower on the baseline tests at the start of the study. Interestingly, however, the older pilots maintained their skills over time better than the younger individuals. In addition, the most experienced and expert pilots scored high on the initial round of tests and then showed fewer declines over time than the pilots with less experience.

“The Stanford study doesn't address the FAA's retirement age. But it does show that training and experience can compensate for the tick of the clock, and that age itself does not necessarily predict performance. And if you don't believe Stanford researchers, just ask the 155 people whose lives were saved when 57-year-old Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger landed disabled US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009.”

Staying youngSimple lifestyle changes can help keep your mind and body young as the years pile on. Here's how:
  • Avoid tobacco.
  • Stay physically active.
  • Stay mentally active.
  • Eat right.
  • Stay connected with people and your community.
  • Keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, and waistline under control.
  • If you choose to drink, stop at one or two a day.
  • Reduce stress and get enough sleep, recreation, and fun.

Senior surgeonsResearchers from the University of Michigan examined Medicare's records of operative mortality in about 461,000 patients who had undergone one of eight surgical procedures. For each operation, they compared the results for surgeons age 40 or younger with those 41 to 50, 51 to 60, and over 60. The study also determined how many operations each surgeon performed. In analyzing the results, the researchers took patient characteristics and hospital attributes into account.

There was no link between the surgeons' age and the operative mortality for five of the eight operations. For three particularly complex operations (removal of the pancreas, coronary artery bypass grafting, and carotid endarterectomy), the surgeons above 60 had somewhat poorer results than those between 41 and 50. Even so, high-volume surgeons over 60 did as well as their younger peers, even on these difficult operations. In the OR, as in the air, experience counts.

Practice, practice, practiceThese two studies tell us that practice and experience can go a long way toward compensating for the tick of the clock. And the message is not restricted to pilots and surgeons. To stay sharp, keep learning and doing. Remember, too, that physical activity protects the mind as well as the body.