February 23, 2011

Healthy Cognitive Aging

Merideth Smith, M.S.
Geropsychology Intern

Carey Pawlowski, Ph.D.
Neurorehabilitation Psychologist

“Senior moments” and “old dogs can’t learn new tricks” are two myths that strike fear in the hearts of many aging adults. However, severe cognitive impairment like Alzheimer’s disease is not part of the normal aging process. In fact “old dogs” can indeed learn new tricks to slow down cognitive decline. We’ll talk about normal memory changes and how someone can slow down these changes.

What are normal memory changes?

Although dementia is not a normal part of aging, there are changes in cognitive functioning that occur with age. The ability to process and respond to information decreases as you age, which can make it harder to multi-task. Different types of memory, like your ability to keep information in your mind for short periods of time and your ability to remember to do something in the future, show declines with age. Older adults may experience difficulty recalling names of people or finding the correct word to use, often called a “tip of the tongue” experience. However, the ability to recall previously learned information and episodes in your life typically remains stable after reaching adulthood, only showing small declines with age.

How can I improve my memory (or at least slow down the cognitive aging process)?

Adults who have learned techniques to compensate for memory issues (like using reminder notes or calendars) can maintain good memory functioning. Additionally, cognitive benefits have been shown for those who have adopted healthy activities such as cognitive training, mental stimulation, social interaction, managing stress, health behaviors, and exercise:
• Formal cognitive training can include learning techniques for improving memory like creating a word using the first letters of the information you need to remember. Training can also focus on increasing your speed in responding to information or shifting attention more fluidly when engaging in multiple tasks.
• Mentally stimulating activities like taking a class, playing chess, reading, or traveling can also positively impact cognitive functioning. Remaining socially active and having positive social relationships promotes good cognitive health.
• High levels of stress are related to difficulties concentrating and recalling information as well as higher rates of dementia. Conversely, decreasing your level of stress and negative emotions is related to slowing cognitive decline and decreasing the risk for serious cognitive impairments like Alzheimer’s disease. Utilizing strategies to manage stress (such as breathing techniques, yoga, meditation, asking for help when needed, etc.) has been shown to increase focus and help improve the ability to respond to various day-to-day demands.
• Aerobic exercise is important for your cognitive health and can prevent cognitive decline in older adults. A recent study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience found that even simple exercise (such as walking 45 minutes a day three times a week) can improve memory, decision-making, and other cognitive functions.
• Other health behaviors like proper nutrition, not smoking, and decreasing the risk behaviors related to diabetes, strokes, and hypertension can also help preserve cognitive functioning. What is good for the body is good for the brain!

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