Mental Abilities Often Change As We Age

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Just recently, I was discussing my writing process with a friend. I described how I used to be able to tune out all extraneous chatter; however, as I’ve grown older, any spoken word – whether it’s from a home health care nurse visiting my father, my next door neighbor yelling outside, or a song with lyrics –takes me off task and makes me lose my concentration.

    It turns out that I’m probably not alone. A new study out of Rice University offers some interesting findings about memory and cognitive processes in older adults who experience distractions – such as irrelevant speech or written words – in their environment. The study involved two groups. The first group included 102 participants who were between the ages of 18 and 32; they had an average age of 21. The second group involved 60 participants between the ages of 64 and 82; their average age was 71.  

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    These participants took part in a series of memory and cognitive tasks. For instance, participants were asked to remember lists of words in one assessment. The younger participants showed 81 percent accuracy whereas the older group’s score was 67 percent. When researchers introduced irrelevant words and asked participants to ignore those words, the older participants’ accuracy dropped to 46 percent. In comparison, the younger participants’ score dropped to 74 percent.

    However, not all of our brain power wanes as we age. For instance, a 2012 New York Times article points out some people are able to delay age-related decline in memory as well as calculating speed. Education – specifically a college degree -- seems to play a part in maintaining cognitive function.  Furthermore, researchers are finding that experience and education, along with culture, motivation, opportunity and personality are foundational for skills that are part of crystallized intelligence.

    So, yes, age benefits the brain in many ways. For example, a study out of the University of Michigan looked at whether age-related gains in wisdom help people deal with social dilemmas and conflicts. The researchers asked participants to read stories about intergroup conflicts as well as interpersonal conflicts. The participants were then asked to predict how the conflicts would unfold.  The researchers’ analysis found that older adults make more use of higher-order reasoning schemes emphasizing looking at multiple perspectives, compromise and recognizing the limits of knowledge. They determined that social reasoning actually improves with age, even though fluid intelligence declines. The researchers point out that because of these capabilities, older adults could play key roles with legal decisions, counseling and intergroup negotiations.

    So what should you be doing to protect your brain at this point of time? Here’s a list:

    • Control your environment. Remove distractions that can mess with your concentration. For instance, I find that if I listen to instrumental or classical music, I can concentrate. However, I avoid places such as noisy coffee shops or turn off the TV in the adjoining room when I’m working or need to concentrate.
    • Exercise. Just remember this mantra – what’s good for your heart is also good for your brain. So get up and go for a walk, a bike ride or dance around your house!
    • Eat a healthy diet. Researchers are finding that a Mediterranean diet protects the brain. Therefore, try to eat a wide variety of produce as well as fish, whole grains and healthy oils. Avoid processed foods and enjoy red meat in moderation.
    • Control stress levels. Stress can damage your brain. Therefore, find ways – whether it’s meditation, yoga or just getting outdoors to enjoy nature – to lower your stress levels.
    • Try new things. Hobbies, games, learning a new language, taking a different way to your destination, brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand – all of these build brain neurons and help protect your gray matter.
    • Socialize. Interacting with people regularly helps your brain remain agile and engaged. So I’d encourage you to be active in a book group or supper club or take part in a craft group.

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

  • Cohen, P. (2012). A sharper mind, middle age and beyond. New York Times.

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    Grossman, I., et al. (2010). Reasoning about social conflicts improves into old age. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

    Pettigrew, C. & Martin, R. C. (2014). Cognitive declines in healthy aging: Evidence from multiple aspects of interference resolution. Psychology and Aging.

    Preidt, R. (2014). Distractions seem more troubling with age. MedlinePlus.

    Rice University. (2014). Older adults nearly twice as likely to have memories affected by environmental distractions.

Published On: July 29, 2014