The Aging Mind

Any study regarding an aging mind will eventually get into the physical functions of the brain. The terms mind and brain are often used interchangeably. The distinction has been debated for thousands of years. A common generalization is that the brain is the physical 'control center' and the mind is the emotional and creative entity that uses the brain. In our discussion of aging mind the definitions are academic. We are dealing with what happens to our cognitive ability and especially our memory as we age. We may, therefore, interchange the two terms.

It has long been assumed that mental capacity deteriorates with age. Age itself, however is not the cause. That association is made because of other conditions that do affect mental function tend to show up with age. In fact a lot of recent scientific research is very encouraging. The good news is that the aging mind does not lose brain cells. But it loses synapses, where the nerve impulses are transmitted and received but loss of synapses can be combatted with mental exercise.

Research is showing that the adult brain has much greater capacity for plasticity than previously believed, growing new dendrites and perhaps even new neurons. The human brain is able to continually adapt and rewire itself. Severe mental decline is usually caused by disease, whereas most age-related losses in memory or motor skills simply result from inactivity and a lack of mental exercise and stimulation. In other words, use it or lose it.

There are volumes of information regarding the technical, chemical and scientific aspects of the aging mind. There is also confusion with terminology. Dementia, cognitive ability, Alzeheimer's disease, short term memory loss...are they related and what's the difference? Older people want to know what they can expect from their minds as they age and what can they do about it. Let's discuss a few of these subjects keeping in mind that by definition they overlap into each other.


Cognition refers to mental processes used for perceiving, remembering, and thinking. Cognitive abilities stay about the same until the late 50s or early 60s, at which point they begin to decline, but to only a small degree. The effects of cognitive changes are not usually noticed until the 70s and beyond. Some cognitive functions—like vocabulary and arithmetic abilities—tend to hold steady even in the aging mind. So does well-practiced expertise like playing chess or the piano. In two areas, elders are distinctly better than younger people. With an aging mind, temperament mellows and emotions even out. Perhaps that's because wisdom grows with age and experience. Yes. When it comes to wisdom, seniors excel, consistently scoring higher than younger adults on tests of life choices, handling conflict and ambiguity, and setting priorities.

What you can do....Cognitive-training studies have demonstrated that older adults can improve cognitive functioning when provided with intensive training in strategies that promote thinking and remembering. In short, engage in many types of mental activity. Do crosswords, Sudoku, acrostics, play bridge, read books, join clubs, get into debates, volunteer — anything to keep the aging mind alive and engaged in new and interesting tasks. The key here is to do more than one mental activity. Working crossword puzzles is good but not enough. Quilt making, even for men, has been found to be excellent because of the variety of skills required. Also aerobic exercise has been proven to maintain and actually improve cognitive function.


Dementia is the impairment of attention, orientation, memory, judgment, language and motor and spatial skills. It is not a disease in itself but rather a group of symptoms which may result from age, brain injury, disease, vitamin or hormone imbalance, or drugs or alcohol. Alzheimers disease is a form of dementia and is the cause of well over half the cases. Multi-Infract Dementia MID is a common cause of dementia in the elderly and occurs when blood clots block small blood vessels in the brain and destroys brain tissue.

What you can do....Antioxidants may protect against the development of dementia. They may even slow it's progression. Gingko biloba and American ginsing are highly touted as treatment for dementia. A study of more than 1,000 Japanese adults in their 70s and beyond, found that the more green tea men and women drank, the lower their odds of having cognitive impairment.

Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's destroys brain cells, causing problems with memory, thinking and behavior severe enough to affect work, lifelong hobbies or social life. It gets worse over time, and it is fatal. The exact cause of Alzheimers is not understood and is generally believed to be the result of a complex set of factors. There are certain abnormalities found in the brains of people with Alzheimer's, but experts don't know whether these cause the disease or are a result of the disease. Alzheimer's patients have things called plaques and tangles that damage the healthy brain cells that surround them, causing the brain to waste away and shrink. Another characteristic of Alzheimer's disease is that brain cells produce reduced amounts of chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, that are required for communication between nerves. This disease is the most common form of dementia.

What you can do....Most of us know or know of someone with Alzheimer's Disease. It can be devastating for loved ones because of the feeling of helplessness. The Alzheimer's Association has led the way in supporting and educating individuals with Alzheimer's and caregivers alike. Friends, relatives and caregivers should try to stay abreast of developments. There is an increasing interest in stem cell research. A compound similar to the components of DNA may improve the chances that stem cells transplanted from a patient's bone marrow to the brain will take over the functions of damaged cells and help treat Alzheimer's disease and other neurological illnesses.

Short Term Memory Loss

Your short-term and remote memories aren't usually affected by aging. But your recent memory may be affected. For example, you may forget names of people you've met recently. These are normal changes. The cause related to the aging mind is that brain cells die at a more rapid rate than they are replaced. There is evidence that the same types of mental exercises that help cognition can be useful in slowing short term memory loss.

What you can do....Mental exercises as discussed earlier and aerobic exercise have been shown to be very beneficial. Short term memory loss in itself is not devastating. You can live with it. In fact, if you have a good sense of humor, it can be an interesting excuse for some of your questionable actions. There are other things you can do. Write things down. Don't make rash decisions. Give yourself time to think. A great investment is a small digital recorder. I bought one for thirty dollars at Radio Shack and don't go anywhere without it.

Unless you have symptoms of Alzheimer's or serious dementia, there's no point in getting anxious about a few memory loss incidents. You do not, however, need to resign to the idea of continuing mental decline. Like the rest of the physical body, the brain needs challenge or mental exercise to stay in shape. At the age of 95, Stanley Kunitz was named poet laureate of the United States. He lived to the age of 100 and stands as an inspiring example of the brain's ability to stay vital in the final years of our lives.

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