Study Sheds Light On How Lifestyle Factors Impact Our Cognitive Function As We Age


The “cure for aging” isn’t a new concept. In line with the medical advancements that have greatly increased life expectancy, researchers have been looking at how to make those twilight years even more enjoyable.

As it turns out, our inner demeanor might have a significantly larger impact on our overall wellness and path to better aging than we previously thought. Forget whether you’re a Scorpio or INTP, these scientists want to know if you’re an “orchid” or a “dandelion.”

The Goal Of The Study

A new study from Simon Fraser University published in Frontiers set out to examine how lifestyle factors affect our cognitive abilities, and thus our larger quality of life, as we age.

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In particular, researchers in this study were curious about curbing cognitive decline that occurs with aging by prescribing certain lifestyle activities such as taking long walks or picking up a new hobby.

However, the authors of the study noted that research on which individuals would benefit from what activities have always been hazy. And the answer to that question was precisely what they hoped to discover.

The Methods And Findings

Simon Fraser University Circle Innovation gathered 3,530 adults over 60 (1,752 men and 1,778 women). Researchers used a word recall exercise to categorize the participants into “cognitive categories (CC),” with the lowest level of cognitive functioning being CC1 and the highest being CC5.

The participants were then analyzed according to 36 lifestyle factors. These factors ranged from hobbies to socioeconomic status to physical health. Some include “ongoing health problems,” “often read,” “smoke/drink,” “often do mild activities,” and “ongoing financial strain.” 

Interestingly enough, those who rated on both the lowest and highest ends of the CC scale showed the greatest impact on cognitive abilities (both positive and negative) from various lifestyle factors. Meanwhile, those who had more average cognitive scores were hardly impacted at all.

To explain why this is, researchers looked at the “orchid and dandelion” theory.

Are You An Orchid Or A Dandelion?

The “orchid or dandelion” concept is more commonly used in childhood psychology and development, but study authors believe the theory holds water in the context of aging adults, too. 

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“Orchids” are individuals who thrive best under ideal circumstances. These people are sensitive and biologically reactive, living on either end of the CC chart. “Dandelions,” on the other hand, are resilient and hardy. They are less environmentally sensitive and live closer to the middle of the chart. 

“[Orchid] older adults are more fragile … and hence prone to overreact to ongoing health and housing problems, disturbing news about the economy, or global pandemics,” explained study researcher Emma Rodrigues in an SFU press statement. “Dandelion retirees are relatively less environment-sensitive and also more resilient to deterioration in poor environmental conditions.”

What Does This Study Mean For You?

I can practically hear you through the screen: “Okay, great—sensitive people are more sensitive. Thanks, science.” However, scientists suggest this discovery could benefit senior adults, their decision-makers, and younger midlifers approaching their golden years.

Whether someone is an orchid or a dandelion can determine how well supportive programs might work for them as they age. This study provides evidence that older adults shouldn’t be pigeonholed into one population or treatment type. 

As the SFU press release put it, “Understanding how modifiable lifestyle factors may maintain or promote cognitive health can lead to a healthier aging population.”

So, are you a dandelion or an orchid? What about your aging parents? 

If you’re unsure, try taking research psychologist Elaine Aron’s 23-question test. The test was originally developed in 1996 to determine whether children are considered highly sensitive (i.e. dandelions), but it can also be helpful for adults looking to assess their sensitivity. If you’re like me, though, I’m sure you already have a pretty good idea of which category you fall into (hi, orchid here.)

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