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April 03, 2018

How an Aging Brain Affects Thinking

From remembering to planning, organizing and decision making, the brain is in control. As people age, though, cognitive changes typically occur; fortunately, they can be positive as well as negative.

On the challenging side, as you age, you may find it more difficult to recall names and otherwise think of the word you want to use. You may find it more challenging to multi-task and pay attention as sharply as you once did. On the plus side, people can typically continue to learn new things, including but not limited to vocabulary and other language skills, and to create new memories. Growing amounts of evidence is showing that people can, overall, continue to adapt to new tasks and challenges as they age.

The National Institute on Aging provides an overview of common cognitive health changes, along with why they happen in the aging brain.

Age-Related Brain Changes in Older Adults

Certain parts of the brain shrink as the person ages, “especially those important to learning and other complex mental activities.” Neuron communication can lessen in select brain regions and blood flow can also decrease – while unwanted inflammation can increase. These changes typically occur in all older adults, even healthy ones, and they can affect mental functioning and cognitive health.

Normal Age-Related Changes – or Not?

A Harvard publication provides an excellent chart with the goal being to help older adults determine if a loss of cognitive abilities is part of normal aging or a reason for concern. For example, if you can’t find your car keys, that’s likely to be normal aging. If you forget how to drive, that’s a reason to contact your doctor. Or, if your keys end up being in an illogical place, such as in your refrigerator, that’s also something to have checked out.

If you find that you’re a little bit more short-tempered than you used to be, that’s probably normal aging. If, though, you are screaming at your partner, more and more – especially if for no discernable reason – tell your doctor. If you don’t answer your phone quickly: normal aging. If you don’t remember that you should answer it: your doctor needs to know. You can read the entire article for multiple other examples.

Interestingly enough, the article shares how dendrite branching increases in the brain, which causes connections between distant brain areas to strengthen. This allows older adults to “become better at detecting relationships between diverse sources of information, capturing the big picture, and understanding the global implications of specifics issues. Perhaps this is the foundation of wisdom. It is as if, with age, your brain becomes better at seeing the entire forest and worse at seeing the leaves.”

Protecting Your Cognitive Health

Psychology Today makes a compelling case that intellectual stimulus provides a layer of protection to the aging brain. For example, while in their 90s, Robert Frost wrote poems; George Bernard Shaw, his plays. Georgia O’Keefe was still painting, and Pablo Casals was playing his cello. Leopold Stokowski recorded 20 albums during his 90s. At the age of 96, he signed a new six-year contract! The article contains multiple other examples, and it states that scientists are especially noted for productivity well into their 80s and 90s, with more than 29 percent of engineers and scientists with doctoral degrees in that age range still working full time.

The article touts the large benefits that occur when people challenge “themselves in new experiences and competencies” and shares how “learning new things makes you feel good about yourself, especially when accomplishing things other people think you can’t do.”

What new things are you ready to learn? Go for it!

Brain health questions answered

Healthy aging is hard on your own. Kendal at Home can help you age well and enjoy your retirement.

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