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Decline is not inevitable

Decline is Not Inevitable
My name is Sabina Brennan. And when I created Hello Brain, a brain health awareness campaign funded by the European Commission, I asked people what they feared most going old. And they tell me that they feared losing their memory and their independence. They also told me that dementia was the disease that they feared 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 that I surveyed accepted decline in memory or other cognitive functions as an inevitable part of growing old. But is it? If cognitive decline was inevitable and part of the usual ageing wouldn’t you expect it to happen to everyone?
Just think for a moment about all of the retired people that you’ve ever known. I’d hazard a guess that if you were thinking of a group of say, 10 retirees aged over 65, one of the may have developed Alzheimer’s disease. Two or three may have remained as sharp as a razor. And the rest may have shown various types and degrees of change, including becoming slower then they once were. Having some trouble remembering new stuff but retaining the ability to regale you with stories from their youth. While many individuals do experience decline in later life there is considerable variability with regard to the 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 1990’s the ageist, but socially acceptable attribution, senior moment entered our vocabulary. It was used 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 under perform 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’re 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 subconsciously accept that decline in memory function is inevitable, or even if you joke about senior moments, you may be getting yourself caught up in a negative feedback loop and end up fulfilling your own prophecy. So what changes can you expect with age? Well it’s not as bad as was once thought. The brain can actually remain relatively healthy and function well in later life. In fact, it’s disease that is the cause of most decline.
As we get older we will experience 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 or where we put our glasses, might actually be failures of attention 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. So it’s nigh on impossible to recall a memory that you never encoded. Attention is really the very first step in the memory process.
So now you’ve heard the research. You might think twice before you use the term senior moment.

Your brain is constantly changing, and your behaviours and experiences shape it at every age. Recent research has found some good news about brain ageing that may surprise you.

Your brain is plastic and can change even in later life:

  • Scientists used to think that the connections in our brain were set like concrete. We now know that the brain can be reshaped throughout life. We call this ability ‘neuroplasticity’.
  • Neuroplasticity offers hope because it means that our brain can bend and adapt when faced with mental challenges, ageing and disease. It also means that you can keep your brain in good shape by staying mentally active.

Your brain is resilient, and “cognitive reserve” offers protection to your brain:

  • Some people are able to maintain better brain function as they age, even if they develop the physical damage associated with dementia.
  • This resilience, sometimes referred to as cognitive reserve, appears to be linked to modifiable factors such as the level of education reached, carrying out cognitively demanding tasks, and being socially active.

Decline in cognitive function is not an inevitable part of ageing:

  • As we get older, it is common to become a little slower at working things out and we may find it difficult to make new memories for recent events. But a serious decline in cognitive function is not automatically a part of getting older.
  • The brain can actually remain relatively healthy and function well into late life.
  • In fact, disease is the cause of most decline.

There are risk and protective factors, and it is possible and important to look after your brain health:

  • While age is the biggest risk factor for developing dementia, we know that other ‘modifiable’ factors can either increase our risk for dementia, or protect us against developing decline in cognitive function.
  • We know that people with better cardiovascular health, who have been more physically, socially and mentally active, who have adopted healthy eating habits, who don’t smoke, and who drink alcohol in moderation are less likely, on average, to develop dementia.

So the news on brain ageing is good. There are many strategies for protecting your brain health that we will be exploring.

Sabina Brennan is a Research Assistant Professor in Psychology at Trinity College Dublin.

This article is from the free online

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