Berkshire SuperGenarian forum seeks to break barriers to aging healthily

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PITTSFIELD — Some 200 people filled the Berkshire Hills Country Club ballroom, but Dr. Mary O'Malley brought a hush to the room as she led people through a series of breathing and mindfulness exercises over the course of nearly 20 minutes.

Some folks kept their eyes open, but others, like city resident Maryann Minella, lowered her lids and focused on her breathing. About a minute in, her face and shoulders became more noticeably relaxed.

Later in the afternoon, as the second annual Berkshire SuperGenarian forum came to a close, Minella and her friends were full of smiles and seemingly new energy.

"It was wonderful," she said.

That's the mindset that the founders of Berkshire SuperGenarians — an initiative for aging with a healthy, active lifestyle — hope to continue to perpetuate in the community.

"We know so many octogenarians and nonagenarians who are vibrant, and what do they keep doing? They keep moving, mentally and physically," said Mary Jane Incorvia Mattina, who co-founded Berkshire SuperGenarians with her friend Francine Weinberg.

Together, their goal is to enlist local health experts to help consumers better understand the current medical and scientific research that can in turn help people, particularly those age 50 and over, to continue living a healthy, independent lifestyle.

According to state data, the average life expectancy of Massachusetts residents is 80 years and eight months. Women tend to live longer, with Hispanic women having the highest average life expectancy, to age 89.

In addition to O'Malley's talk, "Managing Your Moods: Caring for Yourself and Others," the May 16 forum launched with a talk, "Nutrition, Lifestyle, Mind and Mood: Creating Resilience in Modern Life," led by Dr. Mark Pettus.

In between presentations, the program included a brief group exercise, led by local personal trainer Michael Summers, and more than a dozen vendor and informational tables, offering everything from blood pressure screenings to resources on senior-friendly fitness and housing programs.

While there's no silver bullet or magical pathway to aging with longevity and vitality, a recent Boston University study on centenarians found that 100-plus-year-olds are generally not obese, do not have a history of smoking, and tend to handle stress better than the average person.

In his talk, Pettus touted the benefits of eating nutrient-rich, whole foods, and shared research on what's known as the "MIND Diet," which combines Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) models that have shown in studies to benefit brain health.

Both he and O'Malley touched on the topic of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, a protein that's released by neurons in response to various forms of activity.

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"Active neurons grow new connections, even well into maturity," O'Malley said.

So the concept is that the more socially and physically active people remain in a healthy manner, the better their brains and bodies can be maintained. The less physically active, or the more a person is prone to trauma, stress or fear, the more likely they are to essentially wither.

"The effect of chronic stress is like a slow hammer on the brain," O'Malley said.

Which is why taking a moment to breathe, to calm the autonomic nervous system responses, can reduce the adverse effects of stress.

Stephen Porcella of Lenox said the concepts presented during the forum were nothing new to him, "the reinforcement of these principles and ideas that I'm somewhat familiar with is helpful."

Both he and Judy Pieschel, also of Lenox, said they appreciated the knowledge and humor the presenters brought to the forum.

"They're so valuable as resources in the community," said Pieschel, noting that other health care providers in the Berkshires and beyond can be locked into antiquated approaches to medicine and treatment.

During a question-and-answer period, the age 50 and up crowd asked the experts about the latest cancer and Alzheimer's research as well as the long-term effects of anti-depressants and cannabidiol oil.

Weinberg said that, as new research brings about new questions about approaches to improving health and well-being, Berkshire SuperGenarians has the potential to grow as a resource for community members, so long as there's a growing community to support it.

In addition to the forum, the group back in the fall established its first "Hall Walking" program, partnering with Lenox Public Schools, to invite members of the community to use its hallways as indoor walking paths during specified times and dates in cold and wet weather seasons.

"It's simple to implement and doesn't cost anything," Weinberg said, so long as there's an agreement with the host venue, be it a school, business or community center.

Berkshire SuperGenarians is also currently recruiting volunteers to help plan and record a monthly public access television programs on health, wellness and staying active, and to contribute columns for the monthly Age-Friendly Berkshires newsletter.

Interested volunteers or those seeking the forum presentations can email berkshiresuperg@gmail.com.

"We have to take care of each other, and we like to think that these are small ways of doing so," Incorvia Mattina said.


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