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Cognitive Aging

I think that many of us who work in the field of aging and mental abilities sometimes may forget to explain some key terms and phrases to patients. One of the most general and frequently used is the phrase “cognitive aging.” What does it mean/

Cognitive Aging refers to how our mental capacities change over time. It may seem as though all of our abilities go downhill after age 30 or 40, but research shows that isn’t completely true. The truth is that some abilities decline over time, some stay about the same, and some actually improve as we get older. For example, psychomotor speed is an ability in which most people perform more poorly over time. The precise definition of psychomotor speed varies from study to study, but it’s often assessed by tests that ask you to do some kind of task that requires that you think and to something with your hands as quickly as you can. One task is called a pegboard. A piece of metal attached to a block of wood has rows of holes in it, a little like the kind of pegboard you might put up in your workshop to hold tools. The person being evaluated is asked to put small metal pegs in the board as quickly as he or she can. This is the sort of thing that younger persons in general do much better than older persons do.

Another ability that may decline over time is called working memory. This ability is usually assessed by asking someone to keep a couple of things in their minds and then do something with them. The person being evaluated might be given a series of numbers and then asked to repeat them backwards – he or she has to remember the numbers and then somehow mentally read them backwards. Being asked to do mental arithmetic problems also taps working memory. Here, the person being assessed might have to remember some elements of the problem that are given, might have to access some existing knowledge (like how many quarts are in a gallon), and then do a calculation.

What abilities may actually get better over time? Things that don’t require speed or working memory, but may benefit from life experience. The most common example is vocabulary. Many older adults score better than their younger counterparts on tests of how many words they know. Older adults probably have had more opportunities to learn words, and once a word is in long-term memory, older adults can recall it pretty well. Some people have also suggested that because of the benefits of experience, older adults are better able to discern patterns in events around them. Finally, some research has shown that older adults are better than younger persons at certain kinds of problem solving, especially when it involves social skills or awareness of social issues.

Diet and Brain Fitness

When you’re looking to do everything you can to maintain and improve your brain’s fitness, you should think about how you eat. Why? Because in a number of studies, diet has been shown to influence things like high blood pressure, cholesterol, and even your risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.

While you may already have heard about keeping your salt intake low to keep your blood pressure low, too, many people don’t know about the DASH or Mediterranean diets and what they may be able to do for you.

DASH stands for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.” An article published just this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine shows that women who were the most adherent to the DASH diet guidelines had a significantly reduced risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Women who ate 4-5 servings of fruits and vegetables, lots of whole grains, and avoided red and processed meats and sugary beverages had a lower chance of developing heart disease or having a stroke. Since the evidence is increasing that heart disease is linked to poorer memory and developing Alzheimer’s disease, anyone interested in keeping their brain fitness level high should consider changing their diet.

Other studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet may reduce the chances of having Alzheimer’s disease. An article in 2006 in the journal Neurology showed that people who follow the Mediterranean diet have reduced chances of having Alzheimer’s disease (Scarmeas et al. Neurology, 2006, 63, 1709-1717; you need a subscription to see this paper). This same group of researchers followed a group of people with Alzheimer’s disease over several years. They found out that the patients with Alzheimer’s who followed the Mediterranean diet were less likely to die over an average follow-up time of 4.5 years (reported as an abstract at the 2007 meeting of the American Academy of Neurology).

You can find out more about the DASH diet in a publication from the NIH. You can download it here: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/hbp/dash/new_dash.pdf.

This booklet is 979 Kb, and may take a long time to download if you don’t have a high-speed Internet connection. You’ll need the free Adobe Acrobat reader to read the booklet. You can get it by clicking here: http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readstep2.html.

You can read the article about the DASH diet, for free, here: http://archinte.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/168/7/713.

You can find out more about the Mediterranean diet at the Mayo Clinic website: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/mediterranean-diet/CL00011.

Brain Fitness

Strength Training and the Brain

Gray haired woman lifting weight

Lots of evidence points to the usefulness of aerobic exercise for maintaining and improving mental functioning (see a previous blog post here and an extensive review article here). It is not as clear, though, whether strength training has an effect. An article in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that even a …


Old book pen magnifier

Maria Konnikova posts an interesting article in this past Sunday’s New York Times on the effects of undivided attention and mindfulness. In her post, she links concentration to Sherlock Holmes (perhaps because that’s a link to her forthcoming book), but she provides a nice if brief review of some of …

Cognitive Lifestyle and Neuroprotection

man thinking

A study from earlier this year sheds light on how being mentally active may confer protection for cognitive decline. Michael Valenzuela is a researcher whose work focuses on understanding the links between mental activity over someone’s entire life and their later function. In previous studies, he and his colleagues have …

Physical Activity and How Long You Live

Man riding a bicycle in a race

Lots of research has shown that, at least over short periods of time, people who are physically active are more alert, remember things better, and are in better health. But does that mean that they live longer?  A recent review article looked at this question. The authors found 13 papers …

Pulmonary Function and Cognitive Aging

Picture of people running

An interesting study appears this month in the journal Psychological Science. The authors used data obtained over 19 years to study the relation of pulmonary (breathing) functions and changes in cognition with increasing age. Earlier studies had shown that both tend to get worse as we get older, but it …

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