Brain Health Matters: 1. Decline is not inevitable

When I was developing a brain health awareness campaign for the European Commission I asked people what they feared most about growing old and they told me  that they feared losing their memory and their independence. They also told me that dementia was the disease that they fear most.

In addition to going grey, getting wrinkles and becoming frail they expect to experience memory decline as they age and many of the people surveyed accepted decline in memory or other cognitive functions as an inevitable part of growing old.

But is it?

Verdi was in his 70s when he composed Otello and Falstaff 

If cognitive decline was inevitable and part of usual ageing wouldn’t you expect it to happen to everyone?

Think for a moment about all of the retired people that you have ever known.

At 85 Coco Chanel was head of a fashion design firm. At 91 Adolf Zukor was chairman of Paramount Pictures while Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim at 88.

I’d hazard a guess that if you are thinking of a group of 10 retirees aged over 65, one will have developed Alzheimer’s disease, 2 or 3 will have remained as sharp as a razor, and the rest will have shown various types and degrees of change most probably including becoming slower than they once were, having some trouble remembering new stuff but retaining the ability to regale you with stories from their youth. Truth be told you’ve heard the stories so many times you could probably tell them yourself.

Churchill, Goethe, Maughan, Shaw and Toltstoy all produced literary works in their 80’s

Anyway the reality is that while many individuals do experience decline in later life there is considerable variability with regard to nature and the severity of the disturbances observed. Furthermore the fact that a large percentage of older adults don’t demonstrate any decline calls the whole notion of inevitability into question.

In the late 1990s the ageist, but socially acceptable, attribution ‘senior moment’ entered our vocabulary to describe the phenomenon of a brief memory lapse or other cognitive impairment or functional incompetence. Research has shown that people over 65 perform poorly on memory tests when they are reminded of the link between age and cognitive decline. Even individuals in late middle age underperform on memory tests when implicitly reminded of the relationship between age and memory decline.

What this research underlines is the impact that our preconceptions (even when they are wrong) can have on our actual functioning. So the take home message is don’t joke about ‘senior moments’ and keep in mind that decline in memory function is not inevitable. If you unconsciously or sub-consciously accept that decline in memory function is inevitable or even if you joke about ‘senior moments’ you may be get your self caught up in a negative feedback cycle and end up fulfilling your own prophesy. 

Grandma Moses embarked on a 25 year painting career aged 76

So what changes can you expect with age?

Well its not as bad as was once thought, the brain can remain relatively healthy and function well in later life. In fact disease is the cause of most decline. As we get older we will experience a a general slowing in processing speed and some decline in our ability to form new memories for recent events. But even at that many instances that we describe as memory failures, like forgetting where we left our keys, might actually be attentional failures rather than genuine memory failures.

If you don’t ‘attend’ to where you put something you can’t encode the memory of putting it there and it is nigh on impossible to recall a memory that you never encoded.

To read more about this topic visit Hello Brain

These 2-minute animations explain:

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Why Attention is Important

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How memory works

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Different types of memory

About sabinabrennan

I don't believe that we are any one thing. What and who we are at any moment in time is complex and context dependent. While labels are a useful shorthand that help us to navigate the world, all too often they play into people's prejudices and preconceptions. Here is a list of labels about me that begin with the letter 'p' Psychologist, Parent, Pro-Equality, Pacifist, Photographer, Perfectionist I could just as easily select another letter and make a different list of 'About me' labels. So try not to prejudge its just a list of labels beginning with 'p'
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