Revelations About Some Puzzling Aging Behaviors
As some people age, they develop what are often considered personality changes or behavioral quirks. Some begin to "say what they really think," with embarrasing consequences. Others develop gambling problems or depression. A new report sheds some light on possible explanations about these sensitive, often bewildering issues. Let's look.
Bottom line first
A report in the October issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science [not available online as of this writing] finds that age-related shrinkage of the brain's frontal lobe may lead to reduced ability to control inhibitions. This in turn may trigger socially inappropriate behaviors, including expressions of racism, as well as depression and gambling problems.
This study in 50 words or less
The researcher studied previous research on older and younger adults' thoughts on race, gambling habits, socially inappropriate behavior, and depression. He linked these to findings about atrophy of the brain's frontal lobes, the seat of "executive function"--the parts responsible for inhibiting thoughts and behaviors.
Some key observations
On race The researcher found that older adults have a harder time repressing underlying racial prejudice than do younger adults--despite socially prevailing egalitarian beliefs. This is linked to reduced executive function.
On social inappropriateness The researcher found some older adults more likely to engage in "off-target verbosity" (babbling, to use an unkinder phrase) and to ask about others' private issues in public. Again, this was linked to poor executive function.
On depression Reduced frontal lobe function is related to an inability to suppress rumination--thinking about past experiences over and over. Rumination is well established as a trigger and symptom of some episodes of depression. This could explain some portion of older adults' higher incidence of depression.
On gambling The study found a similar link regarding gambling in people with an existing gambling impulse. The older adults apparently were more successful at inhibiting that impulse in the morning than in the afternoon.
Yes, but. . .
The research is an ambitious attempt to connect the dots between a known physiological phenomenon (shrinking frontal lobe); reduced executive function (which is handled by the frontal lobe); and various age-related behaviors. It's intriguing work, but not conclusive. It does not demonstrate cause and effect.
So what are you going to do about it?
- Caretakers of older adults may find themselves embarrassed by social inappropriateness, bewildered by irrational gambling habits, and frustrated by persistent depression. This report suggests possible physiological explanations--which may make the behaviors easier to understand.
- The report suggests that aerobic exercise and caffeine may bolster reduced executive function; this is offered as an observation, not a recommendation.
- The reports suggests that some activities, such as gambling, may be better undertaken earlier in the day--and to expect more problems with social impropriety later in the day.
- For specific advice on caretaking older adults, consult a gerontologist or mental health professional specializing in work with older people.
- Our caregiver community features medical experts and caregivers to exchange questions, comments and observations with.