iStock 000000288228Small Aging effects on the brain: older AND wiser?

With the Baby-boomers now well into their golden years, and Gen Xers coming into middle age, there has been a new interest in the aging process and how it affects the brain.

Does our memory falter with age, or like fine wine improve?

The traditional thinking – that those past the age of 60 start to experience a drastic decline in mental ability – has been successfully challenged in some recent studies. In fact, as science studies the aging brain more in depth, they are finding that those past retirement age may have been given a raw deal.

How Cognitive Power is Effected by Aging

The old school of thought was that as a person ages, their brain cells would die off, and processing time became slower, and as the aging accelerated, so did the loss of cognitive powers. However, researchers in Germany have challenged these decades of old thinking. It turns out that the reason older people may have diminished memory and slow retrieval is that they simply have too much “stuff” in their brain. They have the knowledge and memories of a lifetime stored up there and sometimes it is simply difficult for the brain to sort through all the information. It is like a computer that has been bogged down by a glut of data.

In fact, an older person may indeed have a superior memory. Dr. Ramscar, a researcher involved in the study, explains it like this: does a person who knows only two birthdays and can recall them correctly 100% of the time have a better memory than someone who knows thousands of birthdays but can only recall them correctly 90% of the time? Of course not. We are quick to label an older person’s mental agility as declining when we should really consider the knowledge that their mind contain.

Although, this research may have us reconsidering the way we judge the abilities of the elderly, the fact remains that older people do have slower processing speeds and poorer recollection abilities which can affect both their lives and the people around them. Fortunately, there are simple things you can do to help improve cognitive abilities.

Train Your Brain – Training Can Improve Cognitive Abilities

There have been studies after studies performed on elderly people that prove beyond a doubt that training your mind, by doing mentally stimulating tasks, can significantly improve your cognitive abilities. By offering new problems and novel experiences to your brain, you are creating more neural connections, thus increasing processing speed. A lifetime commitment to learning and mental pursuits can also help the brain resist the normal age-related decrease in mental functioning.

The theory is sound; the more learning you do over the course of your life, the greater the number of permanent neural connections you create. Like a sophisticated computer, the greater and quicker the connections, the faster the processing speed, thus leading to an overall increase in cognitive abilities.

There are a number of different ways of brain training. For the technically savvy senior there are a number of websites, like Luminosity.com that not only help train your brain, but will help you keep track of how you are doing. For those without a love of computers, there are math and crossword puzzles, taking classes at the local college, reading, writing, and social interactions. The worst thing you can do is let your brain get passive by watching too much television, or avoiding social gatherings.

Links Between Age and Accomplishments

When it comes to accomplishments, experience can often trump biology. The wisdom that comes with age cannot be discounted, and there are just as many elderly successes as there are young prodigies. Mark Zuckerberg may have created Facebook at the tender age of 19, but Ronald Reagan led a nation and brought an end to the cold war at the ripe old age of 77.

Melissa Gilbert may have been a child-acting prodigy, playing Laura Ingalls at the young age of nine, but the real Laura Ingalls Wilder did not begin penning the Little House series of books until she was 64. There seems to be little link between age and accomplishments. If you put your mind and spirit into a passion, you can be successful regardless of your age.

Older people’s brains are not less valuable than those carried around in the heads of the young. They may not work as quickly and they may have trouble remembering the odd detail, but they are full of experience, knowledge and wisdom. You may turn to a younger friend to help you run your computer, but next time you need a history lesson, or are having conflict with a friend, talk to a senior because the education and advice you will receive will be precise, invaluable and spot-on. Life experience counts for a great deal.