Research Suggests that Some Aspects of Mental Ability Actually Improve with Age

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Recently while walking out of a movie theater with a friend, I turned to ask her what she would be assigning as our next book group selection. She stopped, thought about, and responded, “I just can’t think of it.” Now admittedly, we had just finished seeing the mind-bending movie, “Inception,” which had kept our attention riveted in trying to figure out the plot twists. Still, my friend was taken a little aback by the inability to come up with the book’s name and joked about how her brain is becoming like a sieve.

    As women age and become menopausal, we often complain of fuzzy thinking and lost thoughts. And often the message that we receive is that we’re on the downhill slope mentally. However, it turns out that belief isn’t true. Newsweek recently ran an article, “This Is Your Brain. Aging.”, which had the promising subtitle, “Science is reshaping what we know about getting older. (The news is better than you think.)”

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    Some of the findings in the article reported by Sharon Begley included:

    • Researchers have found out “in real life, rather than in psych labs, people rely on mental abilities that stand up very well to age and discover work-arounds for the mental skills that do fade.”
    • Some mental abilities (such as wisdom) improve with age.

    Dr. Timothy Salthouse of the University of Virginia noted in the article that little of the conventional wisdom “is based on well-established empirical evidence” and instead seems to be “influenced as much by the authors’ preconceptions and attitudes as by systemic evaluation.” In fact, scientists are finding “that the differences between today’s 20-year-old brains and 80-year-old brains reflect something other than simple age, and instead have to do with how people live their lives,” Begley wrote.

    Researchers are now finding that earlier studies reporting a decrease in brain volume beginning at age 30 may have been skewed by the inclusion of people in the earliest stages of dementia who were not showing symptoms, but who were still having losing neurons and prefrontal cortex volume.

    Additionally, researchers are finding that individuals differ tremendously on their mental ability. “In general, cognitive processes such as processing speed – how quickly the brain takes in and makes sense of information from the outside world, as well as how quickly signals propagate along a thinking circuit – decline beginning in our 20s, just as our respiratory and immune systems decline,” Begley wrote. “Memory and problem-solving improve into our 20s and then plateau, beginning to decline in our 50s and 60s. But averages hide big individual differences. The scores of some adults in their 60s on memory, problem-solving, and other cognitive tests are above the average of adults in their 20s.”

    Dr. Salthouse noted that although genetics does play a certain role in the variation among people in standard measures of memory, problem-solving, and other executive functions, other factors (such as generational differences) may play a more substantial role.

  • Begley’s article helps you realize that mental slippage isn’t a given as we age. However, it is quite easy to fall into the trap of believing that we’re all doomed to face tremendous mental declines as we move past middle age. Knowing this updated research can go a long way in changing this belief system that would otherwise hinder our belief in ourselves and our vitality as we age.

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Published On: July 28, 2010