Exercises for cognitive and physical fitness

By Leslie Tamura
Monday, December 13, 2010; 8:03 PM

We live in a competitive culture. We're people who keep score. From standardized tests to golf handicaps, we like to know how we measure up to others.

As we grow older, though, we begin to keep a different kind of tabulation. It's not that we start forgetting where we left the reading glasses. It's that we wonder whether others in our aging cohort also forget, and how we compare.

Here are some tests adapted from a variety of sources - physicians, professors, Web sites, research articles - to evaluate how you're doing mentally and physically now that you're over 50.

This isn't science; for that, you need a trained clinician to give you cognitive and physiological tests. But if you're looking to set some new resolutions for the new year, now is a good time to assess yourself.


What it measures: Verbal fluency, mental organization, short-term memory

Test: For one minute, count how many words you can say beginning with the letter F. For another minute, say words starting with A. Then a third minute with S. Add them up. No proper nouns, no repeats, no variations on the same word. (If you say "apple," you can't use "apples.")

Score: On average, people ages 50 to 59 listed 42 words; 60- to 69-year-olds listed 38.5 words; 70- to 79-year-olds, 35 words. Those in their 80s named 29 words, and those ages 90 to 95, 28 words.

Good to know: Unlike some other skills, vocabulary improves up to a fairly mature age, and with education. People in their 40s bested everyone with 44 words, while 16- to 19-year-olds averaged 39 words. Twenty-somethings averaged 41 words. Thirty-somethings averaged 43 words.

One of the earliest versions of this test was developed in 1938 to assess brain injury. In 1967, a research group developed scores for letters A through Y (X and Z were excluded) and found that F, A and S were among the "easiest" letters, allowing people to come up with the greatest number of words. On this test, and all others mentioned below, practicing can improve results.

Source: Tom Tombaugh, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, and colleagues tested 1,300 individuals who had no cognitive impairment. Their results were published in a 1999 article, "Normative data stratified by age and education for two measures of verbal fluency," which appeared in the Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology.


What it measures: Short-term memory

Test: Look at the shopping list of 20 items:

  • 2 slices of veal
  • 1 lb. of ham
  • 1 salami
  • 3 oz. of gorgonzola
  • 1 lb. rice
  • 1 lb. tomatoes
  • 2 lettuce
  • 3 oz. prunes
  • 2 cups of cherries
  • 1 bottle of water
  • 1 lb. sugar
  • 4 sandwiches
  • 10 bus tickets
  • 1 box of matches
  • 3 white envelopes
  • 1 box of cookies
  • 1 bottle of dish soap
  • 1 quart of milk
  • 2 turkey thighs
  • 1 newspaper

Study it carefully for five minutes, then cover up the list. See how many of the items you can write down - both name and quantity - in five minutes.

Score: On average, 60- to 80-year-olds recalled nine items. People 20 to 35 years old averaged 14 items.

Good to know: This study found that if people practiced, they could improve their memory.

Source: Elena Cavallini and colleagues from the Universita di Pavia in Italy tested 60 individuals for their 2003 study, "Aging and everyday memory," which was published in the Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics.


What it measures: Face/name recognition, immediate recall

Test: For six minutes, look at the faces accompanying this article and memorize their names. Now cover up the names. Try to write the correct name next to each face.

Click here to see if you can put names to faces in this version adapted from the original computerized trials.

Score: With this test, 60- to 80-year-olds made about two correct matches, on average. People ages 20 to 35 averaged 4.8 correct matches.

Good to know: Practice tends to improve recall.

Source: This test is adapted from Cavallini's 2003 study noted above. In this case, a computer randomly presented each face/name pairing for 30 seconds, then participants were asked to identify the people.


What it measures: Agility, dynamic balance

Test: Time how long it takes to stand from a seated position, walk eight feet, turn around and walk back to the starting point, and sit down.

Typical scores for men:

  • Ages 60 to 64: 3.8 to 5.6 seconds
  • Ages 65 to 69: 4.3 to 5.7 seconds
  • Ages 70 to 74: 4.2to 6.0 seconds
  • Ages 75 to 79: 4.6 to7.2 seconds
  • Ages 80 to 84: 5.2 to 7.6 seconds
  • Ages 85 to 89: 5.3to 8.9 seconds
  • Ages 90 to 94: 6.2 to 10.0 seconds

Typical scores for women:

  • Ages 60 to 64: 4.4 to 6 seconds
  • Ages 65 to 69:4.8 to 6.4 seconds
  • Ages 70 to 74:4.9 to 7.1 seconds
  • Ages 75 to 79:5.2 to 7.4 seconds
  • Ages 80 to 84: 5.7 to 8.7 seconds
  • Ages 85 to 89: 6.2 to 9.6 seconds
  • Ages 90 to 94: 7.3 to 11.5 second

Good to know: Taking more than nine seconds means you may be at risk for falls and should consider seeking assistance getting on or off a bus or getting up from a seated position.

Source: Jessie Jones and Roberta Rikli, kinesiology professors at California State University at Fullerton, published the Senior Fitness Test Manual in 2001 to assess older adults' abilities to perform daily tasks. The performance standards are based on their national study of more than 7,000 Americans.


What it measures: Balance

Test: Balance on one foot, eyes closed. Right-handed folk, raise the left foot - lefties, raise the right - about six inches off the floor, bending the knee at a 45-degree angle. Then start the timer. As soon as you sway, open your eyes or touch the floor, stop the clock. Do this test three times and average your score.

Score: 50-year-olds should aim to balance for 9 seconds; 60-year-olds, 7 seconds; 70-year-olds, 4 seconds. 25 to 30-year-olds may balance 28 seconds. 30 to 35-year-olds stand for 22 seconds. 40-year-olds stand for 16 seconds; 45-year-olds, 12 seconds.

Good to know: Your ability to balance is a good indicator of risk of future falls.

Source: RealAge, an online resource developed by medical writers, epidemiologists and physicians, featured this test for age groups ranging from 25 to 70.


What it measures: Proprioception, or your sense of where you are in relation to your surroundings.

Test: For 30 seconds, march in place, eyes closed. Then open your eyes and see if you've moved from your original position.

Score: Although this test lacks age-related scores, if you were unable to stay in one place or if you are turned in a different direction, you may have proprioception problems.

Good to know: Proprioception allows us to do two things at the same time, without looking. We rely on this sense to open a kitchen drawer while watching a boiling pot, for example, or when we keep our eyes on the road while turning on the windshield wipers. This sense diminishes as people age. You can improve your proprioception by working on your balance.

Source: Gabi Redford, editorial projects manager for AARP the Magazine, suggested this task during a phone interview.


What it measures: Aerobic endurance

Test: How far can you walk in six minutes?

Typical scores for men:

  • Ages 60 to 64: 610 to 735 yards
  • Ages 65 to 69: 560 to 700 yards
  • Ages 70 to 74: 545 to 680 yards
  • Ages 75 to 79: 470 to 640 yards
  • Ages 80 to 84: 445 to 605 yards
  • Ages 85 to 89: 380 to 570 yards
  • Ages 90 to 94: 305 to 500 yards

Typical scores for women:

  • Ages 60 to 64: 545 to 660 yards
  • Ages 65 to 69: 500 to 635 yards
  • Ages 70 to 74: 480 to 615 yards
  • Ages 75 to 79: 430 to 585 yards
  • Ages 80 to 84: 385 to 540 yards
  • Ages 85 to 89: 340 to 510 yards
  • Ages 90 to 94: 275 to 440 yards

Good to know: Clinicians often use this test to evaluate the general physical ability of patients with various medical conditions. Those who can walk fewer than 350 yards are considered to be at risk for falls.

Source: Jones and Rikli's Senior Fitness Test Manual.


What it measures: Mental flexibility, executive function, psychomotor speed,

Test: This requires a sheet of paper on which the numbers 1 through 13 and the letters A through L are scattered haphazardly. As fast as you can, draw a single line connecting numbers and their corresponding letters in alphabetical order. Starting at the 1, go to A, then to 2, then to B, etc., and continue until you get to 13 and L .

Score: There are many varieties of these tests, using varying placement of letters and numbers on a piece of paper, so it's difficult to provide age-related norms. One typical study showed the dramatic increase in time needed to connect these dots as we age: It took 55- to 59-year-olds 79 seconds, while those ages 80 to 84 took nearly 153 seconds.

Good to know: Executive function describes the processes that allow you to focus, accomplish tasks and think outside the box, as well as reflect, evaluate and adapt to new situations.

Physicians use this test as part of the Assessment of Driving-Related Skills (ADReS) Older Drivers Screening Tool to evaluate older drivers. According to this assessment tool, anyone who takes longer than 180 seconds should receive an intervention such as a comprehensive evaluation administered by a driving rehabilitation specialist. This task was introduced as part of the government's Army Individual Test of General Ability in 1944; various versions are available online, including one at from the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.


What it measures: Short-term memory, immediate recall

Test: Click here to listen to these 15 words. Immediately after, how many can you recall?

Score: On average, those in their 50s recalled about eight words. Those in their 60s recalled 7. Those in their 70s recalled six. Those in their 80s recalled five.

Good to know: The average number of recalled words begins to decrease after your 30s.

Source: Hasker P. Davis, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and colleagues from the school's Cognitive Aging Lab administered this list. They have followed more than 3,000 individuals, ages 5 to 89, as part of ongoing research.


What it measures: Semantic fluency, mental organization, short-term memory

Test: How many animals can you list within a minute? No proper nouns, repeats or variations of the same word. (You can't use "lion" and "lions.")

Score: On average, 50- to 59-year-olds named 20 animals. Sixty- to 69-year-olds, 18. Seventy- to 79-year-olds, 16. Eighty- to 89-year-olds, 14. Ninety- to 95-year-olds, 13.

Good to know: Scores decreased with age. Younger minds generated the most animal names; 16- to 19-year-olds listed 22 animals.

This exercise is found in several neuropsychological test batteries to assess semantic fluency.

Source: "Normative data stratified by age and education for two measures of verbal fluency."

Wait . . . wait . . . GO!

What it measures: Response time

Test: Click here to play The Post's version of a response time test.

Score: Different sites for testing reaction speed have different measures of good scores, though most don't seem to provide age-related parameters for a good score.

Good to know: Reacting quickly to environmental changes is vital to driving and other everyday activities.

Sources: Other sites providing information on reaction time and testing include:

Human Benchmark


University of Washington

The Post adapted its test from Top End Sports, a Web site that also provides information about reaction time.

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