Health & Fitness

Complexity and Aging

Kristen Sparrow • May 01, 2020

Complexity and Aging

Ahhh Spain. Cadaques

As readers know, I’m focused on Heart Rate Variability in the clinic.  It is a perfect example of the complexity this author is talking about.  Within bounds, more variability in heart rate is healthier and and leads to more resilience. I wonder about this quite a bit, whether people’s habits get more routine with age.  Is this chicken or egg?  Do we become more set in our ways because our physiology is less resilient so we get more thrown off with age?  Or does becoming more set in our ways make our physiology less complex? My own albeit small scope way of dealing with it is to have an affinity for another country (Spain).  I use the language, go there, try to keep up with their politics.  I’m sure I could do more in this regard.  Exercise, of course, is a given.

“As our bodies age, these anatomic structures and physiologic processes lose complexity, making them less resilient and ultimately leading to frailty and disease.”

“The fractal-like networks of tissue in our brains, bones, kidneys, and skin all lose structural complexity as we age.”

“Contrary to what you might expect, these fluctuations don’t follow regular, or periodic, patterns, but instead show a complex type of variability—what’s known as “deterministic chaos.” Although the oscillations are irregular, they appear self-similar when observed over seconds, minutes, hours, or days”

Physiologic processes, too, lose complexity with aging. Take, for instance, heart rate. Although average beats per minute may stay relatively constant over a person’s life span, tiny variations in the timing between beats become more regular (less complex) with advancing age. ..

We’ve also found that we can improve the complexity of postural control by applying very weak, random vibrations to the soles of the feet. How this intervention works isn’t clear. It’s possible that the vibrations, which can’t be felt, add low-level noise to the sensory system, increasing input to nerve receptors, and thereby lowering their stimulation threshold. This phenomenon, known as stochastic resonance, may boost nerve cells’ ability to gather and react to information about the location and position of the feet. As a result, the body is able to make more complex, and hence more adaptive, postural adjustments…

Simply adding complexity to your daily routine can have far-reaching effects: Learning new skills or solving mental puzzles, for instance, can help improve cognitive function and may help stave off dementia.

So if you dream of retiring to a quiet beach or to the woods, like Thoreau, “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” I invite you to embrace a new mantra: Complexity, complexity, complexity!

Lewis A. Lipsitz is the director of the Institute for Aging Research at Hebrew SeniorLife, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and chief of the Division of Gerontology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he is a practicing geriatrician. His research focuses on the causes and prevention of impairments in mobility and cognition associated with aging.