Healthy adults lose approximately 15% of their neocortical tissue between the ages of thirty and ninety, with higher losses experienced in areas crucial for decision making and executive control. Other brain loss occurs in the parietal, frontal, and temporal cortices. These normal brain changes affect how fast an older adult can process information, pay attention, learn new information, make decisions, remember, and find vocabulary words.
Processing speed is how fast a person can perceive the surrounding environment, figure out what is going on around them, and make decisions. This ability slows with age. A person is most likely to notice these changes when they have to make a rapid decision, such as a sudden change in road conditions while driving. An older adult may not be able to swerve as quickly if they come up on an unexpected object in the middle of the road. Slower processing speed is also seen when a person has difficulty finding the right words when they are in the middle of a conversation. This slowing of response time is normal over the course of adulthood, however it can affect performance in everyday activities such as understanding and remembering rapidly presented and complex speech.
Attention is a person’s ability to focus or concentrate, and their ability to be able to shift that focus as demanded by the situation. Attention also involves being able to figure out the source of different information. The ability to pay attention over a long period of time does not change significantly with age. However, the ability to pay attention to different sources of information does slow with age. Thus, multi-tasking may be more difficult for older adults. It is recommended that older adults focus on one particular task.
Tests of attention usually require persons to locate a specific target among a set of distractors. The purpose is to locate the different target. Sometimes the target differs by only one feature, such as shape, color, or size. Attention tasks such as the one below can be used to sharpen attention focusing skills. The object of both tasks is to find the different targets.
Executive Control Processes
Executive control refers to higher brain operations that include updating new information, switching between tasks, and being able to control one’s responses. Executive control affects a person’s ability to plan and actively participate in their immediate environment. As persons age prospective memory worsens. Prospective memory is the ability to remember future events, such as when bills are due, when library books need to be returned, and the day of a doctor’s appointment. By using a calendar or appointment book, most older adults can manage remembering these events. Pill organizers and medication timers can help older adults remember daily, habitual events.
Memory aging causes failure to retrieve previously learned material. As people age they experience more word finding problems, such as “tip of the tongue” experiences when trying to recall familiar names. This leaves older adults with the feeling that they know the name but just can’t remember it. Older adults may also be more likely to report everyday memory problems, like misplacing car keys or forgetting the reason they went into a room. These memory changes may also cause an older adult to be depressed.
There are certain health-related behaviors in middle and later adulthood that affect memory in later life. Poorer memory is common among smokers and former smokers. Persons who consume fish weekly have been shown to have lower rates of memory loss. A diet that consists of Vitamins B12, B6, folate, and flavonoids -which are found in dark chocolate, have also been shown to have a protective effect against memory loss. There are also positive benefits for memory shown by aerobic exercise and strength training. Lastly, older adults who are experiencing stress or depression can experience difficulties with memory performance.
Vocabulary and language remains stable or shows growth even as individuals approach their early to mid 70s. The meaning of words, ability to use sentences, and have a conversation has consistently been shown to be preserved in healthy adults into very old age. In fact, older adults learn new vocabulary at least into their seventies.
Tips for Optimal Brain Health
With aging come changes in vision and hearing. These changes in the ability to hear and see can affect a person’s ability to perform cognitive tasks. Sometimes these vision and hearing changes can worsen what appears to be cognitive decline in older adults. Some of the declines found in auditory memory maybe due to difficulties in correctly hearing and understanding the material presented. It is a good idea to have a hearing and vision test to rule out the possibility of sensory deficits.
Physical, mental, and social activity have all been shown to promote brain health. Physical activity, such as aerobic exercise, might be both an effective prevention and treatment for cognitive decline. Aerobic exercise interventions are consistently associated with increased cognitive performance and greater brain volume in older adults. Aerobic exercise involves moderate activity that can be sustained for a long period of time. Swimming, walking, dancing, and bike riding are all examples of aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise is thought to improve brain health by creating new brain cells, blood vessels, and by enhancing communication between neurons.
Stay Mentally Active
Research has found that keeping the brain active seems to increase its vitality and may build its reserves of brain cells and connections. You could even generate new brain cells. Ways to stay naturally mentally active include staying curious and involved — commit to lifelong learning. Enroll in courses at a local adult education center, community college or other community group. Attend lectures, plays, and musical concerts. Play board or card games with family members and friends.
Solitary activities such as reading, writing, and working on crossword or other puzzles are great ways to remain mentally engaged. Memory exercises, such as memory flash cards or making a grocery list and then recalling the items on it are also ways to train the brain. Taking up a new hobby, like gardening or drawing engages the mind and the senses.
Remain Socially Active
Research shows that people who are regularly engaged in social activities maintain their brain vitality. One study reported that leisure activities that combine physical, mental and social activity are the most likely to prevent dementia. Other research found that sports, cultural activities, emotional support and close personal relationships together appear to have a protective effect against dementia. Be involved with family and friends. There are many social clubs in Fresno to join. Check out some suggestions here.
By Kristina Turk, PhDc
Kristina Turk, M.S.G., NPML, M.S., is a Ph.D. gerontology candidate at the University of Massachusetts/Boston. Her research focuses on caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease and Frontotemporal Dementia. She has worked in the field of gerontology both in practice and research for the last 12 years. She holds two Master’s degrees in Gerontology and is certified in Nonprofit Management and Leadership. Her specialty is cognition and health. She has published research articles and presented at numerous conferences. Her experience in the community includes being a Program Assistant at the Alzheimer’s Association, working as an international Eldercare Resource Specialist for Compsych Corporation, and serving as a Community Service Representative for Home Instead. She currently teaches psychology at Salem State University and Carthage College in Kenosha WI, and gerontology at Fresno State.