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Around 100 million people watched this year’s Super Bowl on February 3, which was a low-scoring game where the much faster play of the Patriots’ quarterback, Tom Brady, compared with his opposite number LA Rams’ Jared Goff, was a decisive factor. Few in the television audience would have known that the veteran quarterback had special cognitive training to enable him to perform so well according to the mantra: think slow, play slow.

Inspired by neuroscience research into brain plasticity, brain fitness training to improve cognitive function has evolved from board games to increasing the reaction and play speed of Tom Brady. Beyond winning the Super Bowl, improved cognitive functioning can make the difference between life and death. Some road accidents, for example, may be averted through increasing driver reaction speed. Unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death of U.S. citizens from infancy to middle age. Apart from road accidents, some accidental falls and poisonings might be attributable to deficient cognitive functioning.

Studies of long-lived communities around the world show that brain fitness is an essential factor in their healthy lifestyles. Along with cardiovascular health, body and brain fitness help ward off dementia. What is good for the heart is good for the head as well.

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Age remains the greatest Alzheimer’s risk factor, with the vast majority of people with Alzheimer’s being of retirement age. Prevalence of Alzheimer’s increases rapidly with age: one-third of Americans aged 85 or more have Alzheimer’s. But dying with a disease is not the same as dying from it. This begs the question how much mortality might be reduced with effective Alzheimer’s treatment?

This can be answered through a counterfactual analysis, imagining an alternative realization of history, estimating how many deaths might be indirectly attributable to Alzheimer’s. This requires a longitudinal study of thousands of seniors, covering a period of several decades from the 1990s. U.S. longevity analysts are fortunate that such a study has been undertaken, and a population attributable analysis indicates that for this cohort about six times as many deaths were attributable to Alzheimer’s than officially recognized from death certificates.

Given the huge population lifespan benefit of the discovery of an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s, (which may yet be a decade or more away), those aspiring to live until their nineties should focus, like Tom Brady, on maintaining brain fitness until then.

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Gordon Woo
Catastrophist, Moody's RMS

Gordon is a catastrophe-risk expert, with 30 years’ experience in catastrophe science, covering both natural and man-made hazards. Gordon is the chief architect of Moody's RMS terrorism risk model, which he started work on a year after joining RMS in December 2000. For his thought leadership in terrorism risk modeling, he was named by Treasury & Risk magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in finance in 2004. He has since lectured on terrorism at the NATO Center of Excellence for the Defense against Terrorism and testified before the U.S. Congress on terrorism-risk modeling.

As an acknowledged, international expert on catastrophes, Gordon is the author of two acclaimed books: “The Mathematics of Natural Catastrophes” (1999) and “Calculating Catastrophe” (2011). Dr. Woo graduated as the best mathematician of his year at Cambridge University and he completed his doctorate at MIT as a Kennedy Scholar and was a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows. He also has a Master of Science in computer science from Cambridge University.

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