The Power of the Aging Mind

Cognitive psychologists provide an understanding of aging that can help families care for their parents

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Golf Star Lee Trevino quipped that "the older I get, the better I used to be." But it's not all about physical prowess; aging is a head game. British philosopher Francis Bacon wrote some 400 years ago that "men of age object too much, consult too long, adventure too little, repent too soon." Today's cognitive psychologists can account for these qualities and provide an understanding of aging that will help families that care for their parents. This knowledge brings some optimism about a state of being so often dismissed as hopelessly dim.

It's a fact of life that age slows mental processing as well as working memory, the everyday recall we take for granted when we make coffee, set down our keys, or go shopping. Often aggravated by impaired sight and hearing, elders respond more slowly to an external stimulus, be it a question, a loud noise, or a funny joke. Older brains take longer to learn new things as well. And recent studies show that for the same task, thinking pathways differ. Functional MRI and other brain imaging, which can map activity during problem solving, indicate that elders use more and often different regions of their brain, giving credence to a common parental lament—the young just think differently.

In an ever faster world, slower thinking can make seniors lose confidence and fear they're destined for Alzheimer's disease. Not necessarily so. Many qualities of natural aging start in the 20s, becoming evident only in the seventh or eighth decade. But blunted reaction times and diminished spatial orientation can make once easy tasks hard—like driving a car. Contrary to what one might think, it's not the teens but the seniors who account for most fatal car accidents. Taking a left turn with oncoming traffic is especially treacherous for them. And there's good reason that ATM machines and security lines at airports flummox older people, especially when a line of impatient whippersnappers gathers behind.

The younger generation's task should be to help its elders overcome hurdles to independence. That takes often minor tweaks but a major devotion of family and friends. Solving transportation problems may be part of it. But mostly it's about staying close enough to be sure they are safe, engaged, content, and active. Health risks count, too. Although genes are important, there are controllable factors that are particularly rough on aging minds—poor diet, physical and mental inactivity, high blood pressure, depression, smoking, stress. And however healthy, however sturdy the genes, almost everyone over 85 shows some level of cognitive deterioration that can be mitigated—even if researchers have not yet been able to offer certain proof of that.

Draw encouragement from man's best friend: Neuropsychologist Elizabeth Head from the University of California-Irvine showed that exposure to a nourishing environment slowed the pace of mental decline in a group of aging beagles. Over a three-year period, the combination of a healthful diet with added fruit and vegetable extracts and antioxidant nutrients, and a life enriched by regular exercise, kennel buddies, play toys, and doggy school kept the genetically similar old canines mentally younger than their couch potato peers.

Know also that there's more to the aging mind than its decline. Some cognitive functions—like vocabulary and arithmetic abilities—tend to hold steady. So does well-practiced expertise like playing chess or the piano. In two areas, elders are distinctly better than younger people. With age, temperament mellows and emotions even out. Older folk generally pay more attention to their own and others' emotional well-being. 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.

In contrast, wisdom is not a strong suit of younger people. As Francis Bacon observed, they take on more than they can manage, "stir more than they can quiet," and are better at invention and execution than at judgment or advice. The Baconian answer calls for using the mental qualities of both young and old, allowing the strength of one to compensate for the other's weakness. That's good counsel and good practice, if we reckon our parents today will shortly be ourselves.