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4 minutes reading time (837 words)

Aging Brains

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Graph images from Erica Manfield (2/18/2015)

I am 79 years old. So, when I see an article about “aging brains,” it tends to catch my eye. I have just read an article by Michael Tortorello, Is Donald Trump Too Old to be President? (Tortorello, 2/28/2016.) While the title uses the name Donald Trump to attract attention, the coverage and information is much broader.

The article begins by noting that the U.S. presidential candidates Donald Trump (age 69), Bernie Sanders (age 74), and Hilary Clinton (age 68) are all senior citizens. Voters are interested in the physical health of these candidates. However, quoting form the article:

But the most interesting subject may be the one item the candidates’ physicians never mention: their brains. We learn about a presidential candidate’s appendectomy at age 10. But we’re left to guess about the likelihood that he or she will stay mentally acute in office.

As it happens, the field of neuroscience has studied closely the trajectory of cognitive aging, and there is a fair amount of agreement about how our cognitive abilities—memory, learning, attention, reasoning—decline as we get older. Research shows that the decline, if it were a ski slope, would appear fairly flat until the age of 50 or 60. For the next decade or two, it would look like a bunny hill. Then somewhere around age 70, the slope would drop off like a black diamond run. Then a cliff.

You know, of course, that people vary considerably on how well their brain ages. A 2012 article by Timothy Salthouse presents information about aging business executives (Salthouse, 2012). From my personal point of view, the news is good. Quoting from the introduction to this research paper:

An intriguing discrepancy exists between the competencies of older adults, assumed on the basis of everyday observations, on the one hand, and their competencies inferred from laboratory results, on the other hand. The laboratory results tend to portray older adults as distinctly inferior to young adults on a number of presumably basic cognitive abilities, and yet we are all aware of competent, and even remarkable, accomplishments of people well into their 60s, 70s, and beyond. One is thus faced with the question of how to account for this apparent discrepancy between the rather pessimistic results of the laboratory and the more encouraging observations of daily life.

Data gathered in this study indicates that the reasoning function (as measured by IQ testing) peaks before age 30 for the general population but near age 60 for the CEO group. Quoting from Salthouse’s paper:

[The difference has at] least two implications: (a) reasoning ability as it is assessed with cognitive tests is apparently not the major basis for selection into important decision-making positions in society, and (b) age-related declines can presumably occur in important cognitive abilities without major consequences for functioning in society.

Wisdom

Some people grow wiser as they grow older. Quoting from Erica Manfred’s article, We’re Older – But Are We Really Wiser? (Manfred, 2/18/30150):

Before the advent of the printed word and long before the Information Age, wisdom was defined by knowledge, and it was the exclusive domain of elders. Wise decision-making requires history, and only the elders had been around long enough to know much. They were the Wikipedias of their communities.

We 21st-century seniors are not going gently into that good night. Unlike our parents, who were resigned to growing up and getting old, we’re passing 60 and – gasp – 70, kicking and screaming all the way. Many of us refuse to get old at all. We go on juice fasts and Botox up a storm in a desperate rush to stay young.

The article includes short interviews of “three wise women” who are researchers in aging.

Final Remarks

You have heard the statement, “Use it or lose it.” When applied to cognitive functionality, this observation may help to explain the difference between the general population and business executives. It also suggests some of the value of a person following a rigorous path of lifelong education. On average, there is considerable value in a person remaining physically and mentally fit throughout their life.

What You Can Do

Devote a significant part of your daily time to maintaining and improving your physical and cognitive health. Encourage others to do so also.

References and Resources

Manfield, E. (2/18/2015). We’re older – but are we really wiser? Senior Planet. Retrieved 3/4/2016 from http://seniorplanet.org/were-older-but-are-we-really-wiser/.

Moursund, D. (2/12/2016). Improving worldwide equality of life. IAE Blog. Retrieved 3/4/2016 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/improving-worldwide-quality-of-life.html.

Moursund, D. (1/16/2016). Learning problem-solving strategies by using games: A guide for educators and parents/. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. PDF file: http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/279-learning-problem-solving-strategies-through-the-use-of-games-a-guide-for-teachers-and-parents-1.html. Microsoft Word file: http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/278-learning-problem-solving-strategies-through-the-use-of-games-a-guide-for-teachers-and-parents.html. HTML file: http://iae-pedia.org/Learning_Problem-solving_Strategies_by_Using_Games:_A_Guide_for_Educators_and_Parents.

Moursund, D. (2015). Brain science for educators and parents. IAE-pedia. Web: http://iae-pedia.org/Brain_Science. PDF file: http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/271-brain-science-for-educators-and-parents-1.html. Microsoft Word file: http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/270-brain-science-for-educators-and-parents.html. HTML file: http://iae-pedia.org/Brain_Science.

Salthouse, T. (2011). Consequences of age-related cognitive declines. The Annual Review of Psychology. Retrieved 3/4/2016 from http://faculty.virginia.edu/cogage/publications2/Salthouse%20(in%20press)%20Consequences%20of%20age-related%20cognitive%20declines.pdf .

Tortorello, M. (2/28/2016). Is Donald Trump too old to be president? Politico Magazine. Retrieved 3/4/2016 from file:///Users/dave/Desktop/Blog-%202016%20Election_%20Is%2070%20Too%20Old%20to%20Be%20President%3F%20-%20POLITICO%20Magazine.html.

Skill Knows No Gender
Information Underload and Overload
 

Comments

Guest - John Lathrop on Sunday, 06 March 2016 21:47
Pleased...

Pleased to learn that doing the daily NY Times crossword is therapeutic. It sounds so much better than procrastination!

Pleased to learn that doing the daily NY Times crossword is therapeutic. It sounds so much better than procrastination!
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