TIME A Year In Space

The Great Space Twins Study Begins

Astronaut twins Mark and Scott Kelly
Marco Grob for TIME Astronaut twins Mark and Scott Kelly

Scott and Mark Kelly—one in space, one on Earth—go under the microscope for science

When serendipity hands scientists the perfect experiment, they don’t hesitate to jump on it. That’s surely the case with NASA’s improbable study of Scott Kelly, who has just completed the first month of a one-year stay aboard the International Space Station, and his identical twin brother Mark, who will spend the same year on Earth.

Zero-gravity messes with the human body in all manner of ways but it’s not always easy to determine which problems are actually caused by the weightlessness and which would have happened anyway. The puzzle gets a lot easier if you just happen to have a second subject with exactly the same genes, the same lifestyle and the same level of fitness. Observe any differences in their health over the year, subtract the matching genetics and what’s left over on the other side of the equal sign is likely the work of weightlessness. Much of the research that will investigate these differences in the Kellys is already underway, both in space and on the ground.

One of the most important studies involves what are known as telomeres, the cuffs that protect the tips of chromosomes in much the way a plastic aglet protects the tips of shoelaces. The longer we live, the shorter our telomeres get, and the unraveling of the chromosomes that results drives the infirmities that come with age.

“One of the things that comes up almost all the time in the interviews with Mark and Scott is this idea of the twin paradox,” says Susan Bailey, of Colorado State University, who is coordinating the telomere research. “Is the space twin going to come back younger than the Earth twin?” That kind of time dilation happens in movies like Interstellar, but only when someone is moving at close to light speed. The year Scott will spend orbiting Earth at 17,500 mph (28,000 k/h), may indeed slow his body clock, but by barely a few milliseconds. His telomeres, however, will more than make up for that, and he’ll likely come home physically older than Mark.

“A whole variety of life stresses have been associated with accelerated telomere loss as we age,” says Bailey. “You can imagine strapping yourself to a rocket and living in space for a year is a very stressful event.”

Chromosomal samples from both Kelly twins were taken and banked before Scott left to provide a telomere baseline, and more samples will be collected over the year. Mark’s are easy enough to get ahold of, but Scott will have to draw his own blood in space, spin it down and freeze it, then send it home aboard returning ships carrying cargo or astronauts. Both twins will also be followed for two years after Scott comes back to determine if any space-related telomere loss slows and if the brothers move closer to synchrony again.

The twins’ blood samples will also be used to look for the state of their epigenomes, the chemical on-off switches that sit atop the genome and regulate which genes are expressed and which are silenced. Environment is a huge driver in epigenetic changes, especially in space, as cells adjust to the unfamiliar state of weightlessness. “We can kind of build these molecular maps of what’s happening in the different cells…as they’re challenged by this low gravity condition,” says geneticist Chris Mason of Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City, who is leading this part of the work.

Also due for a good close look are Scott’s and Mark’s microbiomes. The number of cells that make up your body are actually outnumbered 10 to one by the bacteria, viruses, yeasts and molds that live in your body. It’s only the fact that most of them are also much smaller than human cells that prevents them from outweighing you 10 to one as well. Still, if you could extract them all and hold them in your hand they’d make a hot bolus of alien organisms weighing up to 5 pounds.

This is actually a good thing, since we need this interior ecosystem to keep our bodies—especially our digestive tract—running smoothly. Like so much else for Scott, that will change in space. “A significant part of what’s present normally in the gastrointestinal tract doesn’t actually colonize,” says research professor Martha Vitaterna of Northwestern University, co-investigator on the microbiome work. “These are things that are constantly being reintroduced with fresh fruits and vegetables, and that’s missing from Scott’s diet.”

Genes can also make a difference to the microbiome, since any individual’s genetic make-up may determine which microorganisms thrive in the gut and which don’t. Scott’s and Mark’s microbiomes will be compared throughout the year, principally through stool samples—ensuring some unglamorous if scientifically essential shipments coming down from space.

Other studies will involve the way body fluids shift in zero-g, drifting upwards to the head and elsewhere since there is no gravity pulling them down. This can damage vision as a result of pressure on the eyeballs and optic nerve. It can also lead to damage to the cardiovascular system, with astronauts returning to Earth at increased risk of atherosclerosis.

Some of these changes can be tracked by blood studies, which will look for proteins that regulate water excretion. Ultrasound scans can also look for vascular damage. Before leaving Earth, Scott had a few small dots tattooed on his upper body to indicate the exact points at which he has to position the ultrasound probe—easier than taking precise measurements to find the proper spots every time he’s due for a scan.

Multiple other studies will be conducted on the twins as well, looking at their immune systems, sleep cycles, psychological states and more. For years, space planners have been talking a good game about going to Mars one day, but those trips will last more than two years. We know the hardware can survive the trip; what we don’t know is if the human cargo can. A year from now—thanks to the Kellys—we’ll be a lot smarter.

TIME is covering Kelly’s mission in the new series, A Year In Space. Watch the trailer here.

TIME Longevity

Scientists Discover the Secret to Keeping Cells Young

Nude mature woman with grey hair, back view.
Getty Images

Researchers say it may be possible to slow and even reverse aging by keeping DNA more stably packed together in our cells

In a breakthrough discovery, scientists report that they have found the key to keeping cells young. In a study published Thursday in Science, an international team, led by Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte at the Salk Institute, studied the gene responsible for an accelerated aging disease known as Werner syndrome, or adult progeria, in which patients show signs of osteoporosis, grey hair and heart disease in very early adulthood.

These patients are deficient in a gene responsible for copying DNA, repairing any mistakes in that replication process, and for keeping track of telomeres, the fragments of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that are like a genetic clock dictating the cell’s life span. Belmonte—together with scientists at the University Catolica San Antonio Murcia and the Institute of Biophysics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences—wanted to understand how the mutated gene triggered aging in cells. So they took embryonic stem cells, which can develop into all of the cells of the human body, and removed this gene. They then watched as the cells aged prematurely, and found that the reason they became older so quickly had to do with how their DNA was packaged.

MORE: The Cure for Aging

In order to function properly, DNA is tightly twisted and wound into chromosomes that resemble a rope in the nucleus of cells. Only when the cell is ready to divide does the DNA unwrap itself, and even then, only in small segments at a time. In patients with Werner syndrome, the chromosomes are slightly messier, more loosely stuffed into the nuclei, and that leads to instability that pushes the cell to age more quickly. Belmonte discovered that the Werner gene regulates this chromosome stability. When he allowed the embryonic stem cells that were missing this gene to grow into cells that go on to become bone, muscle and more, he saw that these cells aged more quickly.

“It’s clear that when you have alterations in [chromosome stability], the process of aging goes so quickly and so fast that it’s tempting to say, yes, this is the key process for driving aging,” says Belmonte.

Even more exciting, when he analyzed a population of stem cells taken from the dental pulp of both younger and older people, he found that the older individuals, aged 58 to 72 years, had fewer genetic markers for the chromosome instability while the younger people aged seven to 26 years showed higher levels of these indicators.

MORE: What Diet Helps People Live the Longest?

“What this study means is that this protein does not only work in a particular genetic disease, it works in all humans,” says Belmonte. “This mechanism is general for aging process.”

Before it can be considered as the Fountain of Youth, however, Belmonte says new and better techniques need to be developed that can more specifically and safely alter the Werner gene in people, not just a culture dish of human cells. He also stresses that there may be other processes contributing to aging, and it’s not clear yet how important chromosome stability is compared to those factors. But, he says. “having technologies like this will allow us to determine how important each of these parameters are for aging.” And if the findings hold up, they could be first step toward finding a way to help cells, and eventually people, live longer.

TIME Research

Air Pollution May Make Your Brain Age Faster, Study Says

Air pollution can also increase your risk of a stroke

Long-term exposure to air pollution may cause your brain to age more quickly and put you at higher risk for a stroke, a new study suggests.

Exposure to higher levels of air pollution may be linked to lower total cerebral brain volume, according to a study published in the May issue of Stroke, which analyzed health data from nearly 1,000 men and women over 60 who did not have dementia and had not had a stroke.

Total cerebral brain volume naturally decreases as humans age, resulting in declines in ability to learn new things and retrieve information, but the researchers found that air pollution exposure may be linked to premature brain aging and higher risks for certain brain strokes.

The findings add new knowledge to the impact of air pollution on the structure of the brain, a link that has remained largely unclear in research.

Specifically, a 2 microgram per square meter increase in PM2.5 (particulate matter in the air that is less than 2.5 micrometers wide) was associated with a 0.32% lower total cerebral brain volume, the study said. To put that in context, brain volume decreases at about 0.5% per year after age 40, and PM2.5 levels can vary widely across the world. For example, the PM2.5 in Beijing is about 175 micrograms per square meter, while the PM2.5 in New York City is about 30 micrograms per square meter.

TIME Aging

Why Nursing Homes Need to Have Sex Policies

The question of consent is complicated by Alzheimer's and dementia

No one wants to talk about sex in nursing homes.

The need for sex doesn’t disappear as we age, yet many facilities for the elderly have no policy on sex at all and only acknowledge that it happens when there’s a problem, like concern that an Alzheimer’s or dementia patient is being abused. Whether it’s out of ageism or just discomfort with the idea of senior sexuality, nursing homes are not eager to raise the issue, leaving a massive gray area where the line of consent is blurry.

“We’ll ask them about their religion, the music they like, what kind of food they want to eat. We don’t dream of asking them about their preferences around sexuality and intimacy,” said Dr. Cheryl Phillips, a senior advocate at LeadingAge, an association of nonprofit senior services.

The risks of ignoring residents’ sex lives are real. The issue most recently came to light in Iowa, when Henry Rayhons, 78, a longtime state lawmaker, was charged with sexually abusing his elderly wife, an Alzheimer’s patient, while she was living in a nursing home. Rayhons was acquitted this week, after testifying that he and his wife had shared a loving, consensual relationship. The case, which involved family tension between Rayhons and his step-daughters, was complicated by questions of whether someone with dementia can give consent, and whether Alzheimer’s patients have the right to have sex or the right to be protected from it.

Mr. Rayhons could not be reached for comment, and the administrator for the nursing home where his wife resided in Iowa, Concord Care Center, declined to comment.

When Phillips was a practicing geriatric physician, she dealt with sex often. In one particularly thorny case, two residents of a nursing home who both had dementia had begun kissing and holding hands, even though they were both still married to spouses who lived elsewhere. The nursing home lovebirds, though, each believed the other was their spouse. After consulting with the families, the nursing home decided to allow the budding relationship to go forward, since it was bringing the two so much happiness.

“The lesson we took out of that is that it is good to talk with families and be open about values and preferences,” Phillips said. However, she added, “There’s a flip side. Elders deserve privacy. If I’m in a nursing home and I’m attracted to a man, do you have to get my son’s permission for me to be intimate? Where are the boundaries with intimacy? That is where we as a country are really struggling. We don’t have good answers.”

When it comes to managing the sex lives of nursing home residents, the problems are not going away. By 2030, nearly 20% of the U.S. population will be 65 or older, according to Pew Research Center. And according to the World Health Organization, there are 47.5 million people with dementia, a number that will nearly double by 2030.

Today’s aging Americans also grew up with fewer sexual limits than earlier generations and may be unwilling to live in nursing homes that don’t accommodate their sex lives, experts say. “Let’s be real. Baby boomers brought the sexual revolution to America in the ’60s—what are they going to bring to nursing homes?” Roberta Flowers, co-director of the elder law center at Stetson University College of Law, told TIME.

But elder advocates, physicians and nursing home experts say that there is no national standard of best practices for how nursing homes should accommodate residents who are sexually active. The policies that do exist are archaic, regressive and even ageist, and do not acknowledge that nursing home residents could happily have consensual sex with each other.

One exception is the Hebrew Home at Riverdale in the Bronx, which is cited by many as the leader in progressive policies on sex. The Hebrew Home has a Sexual Expression Policy, which “recognizes and supports the older adult’s right to engage in sexual activity.”

Daniel Reingold, the CEO of Riverspring Health, which operates the Hebrew Home, said they developed the policy in 1995 after realizing that residents were having sex and the home had no plan for dealing with it. The problem became clear to him one day when he was walking down the home’s hallway and a nurse came up to him and asked him what she should do about two residents having sex in one of the rooms. “Tiptoe out and close the door!” he replied.

Reingold says many of his colleagues in the nursing home community are reluctant to adopt policies because of liability, and also just plain nervousness around sex. The issue is also complicated by adult children who are uncomfortable with their parents’ sexual lives, particularly if there is adultery. “It reflects ageism at its worst. People don’t want to acknowledge that old people have sex,” he said. “Intimacy and sexuality is a civil right no different than the right to vote.”

The question of whether the elderly should be having sex is most troubling when it comes to dementia. But experts and elderly advocates say people with dementia are capable of consenting to sex, that they are able to express that consent, and that sex and touch can be good for them, which makes it difficult to know when it is appropriate to set limits. Hebrew Home’s policy is explicit that patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s can give consent to sex, either verbally or non-verbally.

“A 12-year-old can’t consent to sex with an adult today or tomorrow. You can’t have the same black-or-white rule for someone suffering from dementia,” said Flowers, the expert on elderly law. “Someone with dementia is not incapacitated all the time for all things. If they are not incapacitated at the moment of the sex act, they have a right to have sex.”

She added, “It’s a difficult issue and it’s not going away.”

Nursing homes must establish policies, and must be comfortable talking about sex with residents and their families, advocates said. “People want to have sex. That doesn’t change merely because you have gray hair,” Flowers said. “We have got to be willing to talk about it.”

MONEY Aging

A Sad Lesson From My Mother’s Decline

senior woman staring out window
Getty Images

A diagnosis of dementia spotlights the importance of protecting against devastating outcomes.

Lessons of financial awareness and self-sufficiency began early for me. I was just 13 and my sister was 11 when our father left us. My mother was 35 at the time and had no work experience and only a high school diploma. She had dedicated her married life to our family and supporting my father’s career.

She never had access to our household finances, ever. In the blink of an eye she was faced with having to learn how to provide for the three of us. She found a retail position, making little more than minimum wage. My sister and I did what we could to help, both working full-time in addition to going to school.

When my mother was 53, I was 31 and married with two young children. My sister and I started to notice Mom’s increasingly odd behavior. She got lost while driving familiar places, acted like a child, and forgot to bathe and wash her clothes, among other worrisome behavior. We thought perhaps she was dealing with depression and we sought professional help. She was prescribed antidepressants and went to counseling. Over the next year she continued to decline, and lost her job as a customer service representative.

Shortly thereafter, she was a target of a financial scam. She initiated three outgoing wire transfers totaling nearly $30,000, her life’s savings. To her, in her increasing confusion, it was great news! She had won the Mexican lottery! We only learned of it from a bank teller who was suspicious of the wire instructions. (If a loved one is exhibiting early signs of dementia, it’s very helpful to get to know the local bank branch staff and title accounts so they can alert family if they notice odd or uncharacteristic behavior by a longtime customer).

She soon could not pay her mortgage and we were forced to sell her home. She moved in with us. I was able to find an adult daycare to care for her while my husband and I were at work. So on we went day by day. I’d drop my kids off at school and mom off at daycare, at my expense.

Several years later, when she needed around-the-clock care, we looked for a facility that approved Medicaid, since she had no resources to pay for long-term care. This was a painful, difficult lesson – and one that I share with my clients: The time to purchase long-term care is when you don’t need it. My mother would hate knowing that my sister and I are paying out of pocket for preventative care and day-to-day expenses.

Dementia may have a long life cycle. Today my mother is 68. She has not recognized my sister or me for over six years. We have seen firsthand how 13 years in long-term care facilities can devastate a family both financially and emotionally.

There was a time when we had resources to purchase protection again these risks, and we didn’t. Dementia or other disabilities can happen at any age, and the lessons have been painful on many levels. A proud woman, my mother never expected to be financially dependent on anyone. It is a painful lesson for all of us. But if there is a silver lining, it’s this: As a financial adviser, I have been able to help others avoid making a similar mistake.

As the Baby Boomer generation ages, some estimate that as many as one in three individuals will suffer some form of cognitive dysfunction, from mild impairment to full-blown dementia. Our family wasn’t ready for this. Is yours?

———

Margaret Paddock, who oversees U.S. Bank’s wealth managers and financial advisers in the Minneapolis/St. Paul market, is quick to advise her clients to make preparations for catastrophic care and provisions for situations that are hard to envision, but which can come to pass.

MONEY

Why Millennials Are in for a Worse Midlife Crisis than their Parents

senior man in motorcycle gear
Henrik Sorensen—Getty Images

Marriage, it turns out, lessens the dip in happiness that happens in one's late 40s. But most Gen Y-ers have steered clear of the altar.

I’m a happily married 28-year-old with a beautiful wife and son. My life is good.

But if research is correct, I will grow increasingly more dissatisfied with my life over the next 20 years. Which is terrifying.

The midlife crisis is very real.

Studies show that people are pretty happy when they’re young and when they’re older—thank youthful exuberance and not having to work, respectively. But between 46 and 55, folks endure peak ennui.

That happiness ebbs as one ages is not particularly surprising. Careers plateau, dreams are deferred and bills increase in quantity and frequency.

This U-shaped happiness curve has been the focus of a lot of research recently and many nations (from Britain to Bhutan) have shown interest in augmenting citizens well-being with the intent that gross happiness is just as important to the economy as the gross domestic product.

One recent study on the topic—published in the National Bureau of Economic Research—has me feeling just a little bit less sad about my upcoming depression. It found that married folks like myself will experience a less dramatic midlife crisis than their non-married peers.

Authors Shawn Grover and John Helliwell used data from two U.K. surveys and found that while life-satisfaction levels declined for those who married and those who didn’t, the middle-age drop was much less severe for the betrothed, even when controlling for premarital happiness.

Having a dedicated partner, it seems, eases the burden of watching your youth pass slowly through your fingers. Tying the knot can soften the blow, in the other words.

Moreover, people who consider their partner a friend enjoy the most happiness.

“We explore friendship as a mechanism which could help explain a casual relationship between marriage and life satisfaction, and find that well-being effects of marriage are about twice as large for those whose spouse is also their best friend,” the authors wrote.

These findings could leave many of my peers in an emotional nadir: According to data from the Pew Research Center, millennials just aren’t terribly interested in the institution of marriage. Only 26% of people aged 18 to 32 were married in 2013—10 points lower than Gen X when they were of a similar age in 1997, and 22 points below boomers’ marriage patterns in 1960.

My generation still has a few years before they hit the bottom of the U curve. And perhaps an improving economy will make the prospect of marriage more attractive to those in my cohort. Here’s hoping.

I didn’t plan to marry when I did—like most of my generation the thought really didn’t occur to me. But my longtime girlfriend and I walked down the aisle after we found out she was pregnant. And from my current pre-midlife-crisis vantage point, I can see why marrying someone I love and with whom I share a common worldview will make the process of aging slightly less pale and ugly.

Life’s hard, but it turns out that it’s nice to have someone you love to complain about it with.

More From the First-Time Dad:

MONEY retirement income

Why Are States Leaving Billions in Retiree Income on the Table?

Many elderly can afford to pay more in taxes. And with a growing number of needy seniors to support, states can't afford to pass up that revenue.

Illinois is the national poster child for state budget messes. My home state faces a $7.4 billion general fund deficit and a $12 billion revenue shortfall. One proposed idea for plugging at least part of the horrific shortfall: tax retirement income. But our new governor, Republican Bruce Rauner, has rejected the idea.

Illinois exempts all retirement income from state taxes—Social Security, private and public pensions, and annuities. We’re leaving $2 billion on the table annually, according to the state’s estimates. And we’re hardly alone: 36 states that have an income tax allow some exemption for private or public pension benefits, and 32 exempt all Social Security benefits from tax, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP). States currently considering wider income tax exemptions for seniors include Rhode Island and Maryland.

With the April 15 tax day just around the corner, it’s a timely moment to ask: What are these politicians thinking?

Income tax exemptions date back to a time when elderly poverty rates were much higher than they are today (federal taxation of Social Security began in the 1980s). As recently as 1970, almost 25% of Americans older than 65 lived in poverty, according to the Census Bureau; now it’s around 9%. Today, it still makes sense to tread lightly on vulnerable lower-income seniors, many of whom live hand to mouth trying to meet basic expenses. And the number of vulnerable seniors is on the rise.

MORE SENIORS

But much of the benefit of state retirement income exemptions goes to affluent elderly households. The cost of these exemptions is high, and it’s going to get higher as our population ages. In llinois, the number of senior citizens is projected to grow from 1.7 million in 2010 to 2.7 million by 2030. That points to a demographic shift that will mean a shrinking pool of workers will be funding tax breaks for a growing group of retirees.

So there’s a real need for states to target these tax breaks to seniors who really need them. Yet one of the plans floated in Rhode Island would exempt all state, local and federal retirement income, including Social Security benefits—from the state’s personal income tax. The Social Security proposal is an especially good example of a poorly targeted break.

Currently, Rhode Island uses the federal formula for taxing Social Security, which already protects low-income seniors from taxes. Under the federal formula, beneficiaries with income lower than $25,000 ($32,000 for couples) are exempt from any tax (income here is defined as adjusted gross plus half of your Social Security benefit). Up to 50% of benefits are taxed for beneficiaries with income from $25,000 to $34,000 ($32,000 to $44,000 for married couples). For seniors with incomes above those levels, up to 85% of benefits are taxed.

If Rhode Island decides to exempt all Social Security income from taxation, more than half of the benefit will flow to the wealthiest 20 percent of taxpayers, according to an ITEP analysis.

“The poorest seniors in Rhode Island wouldn’t get a dime from this change, because they already don’t pay state taxes on Social Security,” says Meg Wiehe, ITEP’s state tax policy director.

WORKING LONGER

Another tax fairness issue is inequitable treatment of older workers and retirees. The percentage of older workers staying in the labor force beyond traditional retirement age is rising—and many of them are sticking around just to make ends meet. Those workers are bearing the full state income tax burden, effectively subsidizing more affluent retired counterparts.

Some tax-cut advocates might argue that breaks for seniors will help retain or attract residents to their states. But numerous studies show that few seniors move around the country for any reason at all. Just 50% of Americans age 50 to 64 say they hope to retire in a different location, according to a recent survey by Bankrate.com, and the rate drops to 20% for people over 65.

For those who do move, taxes are a consideration—but not the only one.

“A lot of factors go into the decision,” says Rocky Mengle, senior state analyst at Wolters Kluwer, Tax & Accounting US. “Climate, proximity to family and friends are all very important, along with the overall cost of living. But I’d certainly throw taxes into the mix as a consideration.”

Smart tax policy makers and politicians should take all these factors into consideration—especially in states that are facing crushing deficits and debt burdens. Targeted exemptions for vulnerable seniors make sense, but the breaks should be affluence-tested.

“The scales would vary state to state,” says Wiehe. “But a test that makes sure taxation isn’t a blanket giveaway with most of it going to the most affluent households.”

Indeed. In the golden years, not all the gold needs to go to the rich.

Read next: 1 in 3 Older Workers Likely to Be Poor, or Near Poor, in Retirement

TIME Aging

The Health Perks of Arts and Crafts for Adults

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Why the elderly should go DIY

Just as coloring books for adults are starting to fly off the shelves, a new study suggests that older adults who do creative activities like arts and crafts could delay the development of memory problems in old age.

The study, which is published in the journal Neurology, looked at 256 people who were between 85 to 89 years old and did not have any memory related problems at the start of the study. The men and women were followed for four years. The people in the study reported their levels of engagement in the arts, including painting, drawing, sculpting, woodworking, ceramics, quilting and sewing. They also estimated their social life—hanging out with friends, traveling, and attending book clubs and Bible studies—as well as their computer use, which included searching the Internet and buying things online.

People who exercised their artistic muscle were 73% less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, a condition that can mean memory problems and reduced mental function, than those who didn’t partake in artistic activities. People who did a lot of crafts like woodworking and quilting were 45% less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment than people who did not, and computer users were 53% less likely to develop it compared to adults who didn’t use the computer. Social adults were 55% less likely to have memory problems later on than their antisocial peers.

The researchers also found that other risk factors, like having high blood pressure and depression in middle age, also increased the risk of mild cognitive impairment later in life.

Education may increase the mind’s resilience, which can keep memory loss symptoms at bay, the researchers say. “The reduced risk with computer use and with artistic or crafts activities suggest that these activities should be promoted throughout life,” the authors write. “These activities may also increase cognitive reserve, maintain neuronal function, stimulate neural growth, and recruit alternate neural pathways to maintain cognitive function.”

Kids are encouraged to express their creativity, but arts and crafts may stimulate the minds of adults, too. “There have been a number of studies both in older and somewhat younger individuals suggesting that physical but also mental activity may help prevent development of dementia,” says Dr. James Leverenz, director of the Cleveland Center for Brain Health at the Cleveland Clinic. (Leverenz was not involved in the research.) “We know [mental activity] doesn’t harm anyone, so I encourage it,” he says. “Sometimes that’s just getting out and being social and not sitting around the house all day.”

According to Leverenz, some science suggests that having the brain being stimulated both socially and physically increases growth factors that are important for brain health. At the same time, Leverenz says that the group of adults analyzed in the study was fairly unique since they had no memory problems at their old age. It also should be noted that cause and effect could not be determined in the study. “One of the earliest symptoms of the disease is a loss of interest in activities,” says Leverenz. “It might be that it’s not the loss of activities that cause them to transition, but actually it’s the very early stages of the disease that cause them to be less active.”

While further research is needed, this new study is your best excuse to dig out that artwork—or finger paints—you only thought you grew out of.

TIME Aging

The World’s Oldest Person Has Died in Japan

The World's Oldest Person Celebrated Ahead Of Turning 117
Buddhika Weerasinghe—Getty Images Misao Okawa, the world's oldest Japanese woman, poses for a photo on her 117th birthday celebration at Kurenai Nursing Home on March 4, 2015, in Osaka, Japan

Misao Okawa was 117 years old

The world’s oldest person, who celebrated her 117th birthday less than a month ago, died early Wednesday in Osaka, Japan.

Staff at Misao Okawa’s nursing home said she died of heart failure, the Associated Press reported. She reportedly lost her appetite 10 days ago, and breathed her last with her grandson and carers beside her.

“She went so peacefully, as if she had just fallen asleep,” said Tomohiro Okada, an official at the home. “We miss her a lot.”

Born on March 5, 1898, Okawa was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2013 as the world’s oldest person. Okawa, who had two daughters and a son with her late husband, is survived by four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

[AP]

Read next: 13 Secrets to Living Longer From the World’s Oldest People

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME medicine

How 3D Imaging Can Tell Exactly How Old You Are

You may be able to dodge questions about your age, but your face can’t

For the first time, scientists have used 3D imaging of a people’s faces to predict their age. The 3D information was so accurate, in fact, that it was better at pinpointing age than the best known marker, a test that involves studying the DNA.

Reporting in the journal Cell Research, Jing-Dong J Han, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences-Max Planck Partner Institute for Computational Biology, found that certain facial measures are reliable predictor’s of a person’s biological age. The researchers analyzed 3D facial images from more than 300 people, and matched them up with measurements from several dozen blood markers including cholesterol and albumin. Specifically, the width of the mouth and nose, and the distance between the mouth and nose tend to expand with age, and the eyes tend to droop over time. Measuring this change provides a relatively stable way of tracking, and predicting, a person’s age.

“Overall facial features show higher correlations with age than the 42 blood markers that are profiles in routine physical exams,” says Han.

 

Weiyang Chen–2015 Nature Publishing Group. Visualizations of facial aging.

MORE: Human Faces Can Express at Least 21 Distinct Emotions

She arrived at the finding after hearing a colleague present work on using 3D facial images to quantify racial differences. “It immediately struck me that facial images might be a potential good phenotype to include in our study to quantify the extent of aging,” she says. “I did not expect to see such remarkable changes with age, nor did I expect the 3D images to be such an accurate biomarker for biological age.”

Why is it important? Han says that pinpointing how quickly a person is aging via the relatively easy 3D algorithm could have useful health implications that go beyond keeping people honest about their age. Such a measure might provide a window into deeper physiological processes that could be aging abnormally fast. “It might have important implications for assessing the risks of aging-associated diseases, and for designing personalized treatment schemes to improve their life styles and health,” she says.

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