Maintaining mental capacity as you grow older
As we grow older, there is a decrease in various functional capacities within our bodies, including physical, visual, and mental functioning.
Paradoxically, studies that reviewed individuals’ perceived happiness over the life course suggest that older adults experience disproportionately high levels of life satisfaction and well-being compared to previous time periods in their lives.
That’s not to say that there aren’t challenges to be encountered, particularly with respect to aspects of cognition, such as decision making and memory.
The cognition pyramid
Cognition exists in a conceptual hierarchy resembling a pyramid, starting with simple tasks and building in complexity.
Attention : the capacity to direct one’s cognitive efforts toward stimuli
Visuospatial and language skills : the capacity to orient oneself in the world and to communicate
Memory: the ability to store and recall pieces of information
Executive functioning : ability to do complex tasks that integrate aspects of previous layers, such as make decisions, navigate the public transport system, or prepare a multi-course meal
It’s important to note that although growing older is associated with age-related decline in cognitive functioning, not everyone experiences these changes in the same way. Some may experience few to no cognitive changes, while others may experience debilitating cognitive deficits, such as in those with Alzheimer’s disease. Emerging research provides some insights into the steps we can take toward maintaining high levels of cognitive function over the course of our life.
Our cognitive reserve
Cognitive reserve refers to the resources that we build over our lives that provide a form of protection against age-related cognitive decline. If you think of this in relation to computers, your brain is the hardware and your cognitive reserve the software.
With outdated (or deteriorating) hardware, highly functioning software may be able to compensate for the hardware’s deficits. In the same way, if a person is experiencing neuronal loss (a physical deterioration), their cognitive reserve may be able to offset the brain’s deficits.
How our cognitive reserve works
If two people are both experiencing challenges finding words in conversation (what is known as “verbal fluency” in the cognition world), they may have different compensatory abilities. Person A, who is a voracious reader and writes for a living, may be better equipped to quickly find a synonym if they get stuck on a word than Person B, who has less formal education and reads little. Even if Person A can’t find the exact word they’re looking for, if they can quickly insert a synonym without skipping a beat, their cognitive deficits may be imperceptible to the external observer.
Building cognitive reserve
You can build up your own cognitive reserve by participating in certain types of activities that researchers have found to be associated with cognitive reserve:
- pursuing higher education
- exercising regularly
- pursuing leisure activities, particularly physically active ones
- learning a new instrument or language
Even small, incremental changes in lifestyle over time can have long-term impacts, so you don’t have to go from the couch to a marathon to reap the benefits. Starting with small activities and building up over time may help you build the cognitive reserve that puts you in a position to foster healthy aging in your own life.
Does increased happiness come with age?
Mental health and well-being over the life course is an increasingly popular area of research due, in part, to their unique trajectories.
Researchers have noticed that older adults exhibit a unique phenomenon whereby, despite experiencing greater physical, cognitive, and functional impairments, they actually have higher well-being than they did previously in their lives.
This is known by a variety of names, including the “well-being paradox” or “resilience paradox.” Exactly why this occurs remains a focus of debate. It may be the result of favorable brain changes, that older adults are better at dealing with stress, or that aspirations lower over time to the point where they intersect with reality.
Stay socially engaged
Socialization is part of being human, and it can have positive impacts throughout life. Research has established a link between hearing loss and cognitive decline. One hypothesis for this? People who have hearing-related challenges may be less able to participate in social conversations, resulting in fewer social interactions, which then leads to less cognitive stimulation.
This article was originally published in the Holiday 2023 issue of Live Naturally magazine.