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An Aging Brain is Not a Bad Thing

Pexels-ekaterina-bolovtsova-6193936One of the symbols of ageism is the unwelcome image of a doddering, feeble and discombobulated old-timer. Scientific research suggests this could not be further from the truth.

A fascinating article written by two doctors and published last July in Cerebrum, sponsored by the private philanthropic organization Dana Foundation, cites research that most adults age successfully, and their aging brains are a large part of the reason why. Drs. Tanya Nguyen and Dilip Jeste write:

"As we grow older, our physical functioning declines, but our mental and social functioning tends to improve. ...Physical capacity and mental speed begin to decline around age 30, and even more noticeably after age 50. But not all mental functions deteriorate. 'Crystallized' cognitive skills at age 75 are roughly equivalent to those at age 20. These are the intellectual abilities based on the accumulation of knowledge, facts, skills, and experiences throughout life, such as verbal skills and inductive reasoning."

In citing a study conducted at the UC San Diego Center for Healthy Aging, Nguyen and Jeste report:

"...mental well-being improved in an almost linear fashion from age 20 until the 90s. Young adults in their 20s and 30s suffered the most from depressive symptoms, anxiety, and stress. As the years progressed, most people felt they were aging successfully—a sense of well-being that includes attainment of goals, positive attitudes toward oneself and the future, social connectedness, and adaptation—despite worse physical functioning and social stresses. We saw this phenomenon not only in healthy older adults living in communities but also in those with and being treated for serious mental and medical illnesses, including schizophrenia, AIDS, and cancer."

Some of the most important brain research is in the area of neuroplasticity. According to Nguyen and Jeste:

"One of the most exciting developments in neuroscience during the past two decades is the discovery that our brain continues to evolve into old age through 'plasticity,' i.e., strengthening of existing synapses and formation of new ones, in the context of appropriate physical, cognitive, and psychosocial stimulation. ...People who stay active physically, cognitively, and socially tend to maintain their vocabulary, their ability to recognize events, objects, and people they’ve encountered before, and the motor skills learned during early childhood, such as swimming or bicycling. Their brains are likely to escape the atrophy that occurs in the brains of sedentary, lonely, inactive seniors."

Another intriguing aspect of the aging brain is in responding to emotions:

"This might explain the “positivity effect” of aging, a tendency to favor positive emotions and memories. Older people pay attention to and remember pleasurable and gratifying events better than sad, frightening, regrettable ones, whereas younger individuals retain positive and negative information equally well. It is as if young minds are like Velcro® for negative experiences, and older minds like Teflon®. Older adults more easily dispel feelings of disappointment, regret, and remorse, and worry less about events or issues they cannot change."

Perhaps this offers some reassurance that an aging brain is not a bad thing -- and aging isn't so bad either!

Photo by Ekaterina Bolovtsova, is a Wearever Top 20 Senior Blog and a Top 75 Baby Boomer Blog

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