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Cross-sectional studies tend to show robust, age-related declines on a variety of memory tasks, which is consistent with the frequent memory complaints among older adults. In comparison to younger adults, older adults have lower working memory (e.g., keeping thoughts activated in the face of distraction, as would be required when mentally multiplying two large numbers) and longer-term memory (e.g.,remembering a list of words). Memory deficits observed with age correspond to biological changes in the brain. Older brains have less volume, especially in the frontal lobes, less myelination, less blood flow, sparser dendritic branching, and lower levels of some neurotransmitters. All of these are thought to impair fundamental memory function.

Memory and Aging

In light of this clear evidence of behavioral and biological memory declines, one wonders if memory loss is an unavoidable consequence of aging. Although disease and heredity clearly limit cognitive abilities in older adults, research over the last 20 years has shown that most people have a good deal of control over their mental fitness.

Consider the findings of a 2008 study conducted by Kenneth Langa and colleagues. In 1993, they administered a battery of memory tests to a large group of people over the age of 70. A decade later, the same tests are administered to a different large sample of people aged 70 and up. They calculated the percentage of people who had severe memory loss or dementia in both samples. The intriguing finding was that dementia was much less likely (nearly 30% less likely) in the more recent sample, implying that characteristics of the more recent 2002 sample (possibly better attitudes, education, health care, and/or mental and physical exercise) were protective in terms of maintaining mental fitness.

Using Effective Strategies

One factor could be attitudes toward aging. Individuals who believe that memory decline is an unavoidable consequence of aging may be less likely to engage in active and effective learning strategies. At least some of the memory decline seen in older adults may be due to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Although not always replicated, research shows that age-related memory declines are less severe in cultures with more positive attitudes toward older adults (e.g., mainland China) than in cultures with less positive attitudes (e.g., the United States). Age differences are also more pronounced in laboratory tasks where the memory nature of the experiment is emphasized, according to research. The idea is that strong memory instructions activate negative age-related stereotypes, which impair older adults’ ability to process information effectively.

According to research, older adults should learn as much as they can about aging and memory. There is clear evidence, for example, that good strategies improve memory at any age. Furthermore, older adults are more susceptible to distraction, require more external cues (e.g., notes) to retrieve memories, and have a preferred time of day (usually the morning) for focusing their attention. Thus, older adults can maximize their memory capabilities by learning good strategies and being aware of the conditions that enhance memory in older adults (e.g., less distraction, good notes, optimal time of day)..

Mental Exercise

One widely held belief is that staying mentally active will aid in the maintenance of mental fitness. Indeed, there is strong evidence that training with specific tasks results in specific benefits for people of all ages. Thus, working crossword puzzles on a regular basis will most likely result in improved word retrieval for the types of words commonly used in crossword puzzles. There is less evidence for the more general benefits of mental exercise (for example, that doing crossword puzzles improves working memory capacity). Nonetheless, a slew of cognitive and brain fitness computer programs are being developed that promise broad cognitive and neuronal processing benefits.

In general, current evidence suggests that people with high levels of mental engagement are more likely to keep their abilities for a longer period of time. Older people with complex jobs and those who engage in cognitively demanding leisure activities outperform on a variety of memory tests. Given the strong evidence that social connectedness in later life is an important predictor of both happiness and cognitive ability, the ideal mental exercises may be those that involve other people, such as joining a book club or taking a cooking class.

Heart Health and Physical Activity

Given the brain’s high demand for oxygen and nutrients, good vascular health is critical for optimal neuronal functioning. Thus, a healthy diet, as well as attention to the conditions that contribute to cardiovascular disease (e.g., high cholesterol), are important. Indeed, some researchers believe that vascular diseases are strongly associated with cognitive decline in older adults. Consistent with this viewpoint, one possible explanation for the lower prevalence of dementia among today’s 70-year-olds is that the 1990s were a decade in which doctors heavily prescribed medications to control blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Physical exercise has been shown to improve cognitive functioning in recent studies. Physical activity, according to animal studies, increases the development of capillaries in the brain, the growth of new neurons, and the levels of certain neurotransmitters. Human studies show that older adults who engage in higher levels of physical activity experience less cognitive decline over time. It appears that even modest exercise regimens (e.g., brisk walking for 45 minutes three times a week for six months) produce significant benefits in cognitive functioning, including mental processing speed and working memory.

 

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