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Planning Retirement Online

Beyond the Headlines

April 2015


By Jeanne DavisJeanne Davis

Each month our resident writer and commentator Jeanne Davis goes behind recent news stories to comment on various ideas and subjects that have special resonance for our age group.

Written in her usual thought provoking and entertaining style, we know you will enjoy this addition every month

To view all of Jeanne's articles visit the Interest Index.

Being Older but Wiser Supported by Science

Like many of my contemporaries I worry about memory lapses. I search for a word and struggle to retrieve it. I forget where I left my glasses. I walk into a room and wonder why I’m there. And how embarrassing it is when you start to talk about a movie you saw recently and realize you can’t remember the title.

But what’s the good news about getting older. I’ve become addicted to reading all the articles about research into the effects of aging on the brain. The good news I treasure, the less positive ones I tend to discard.

The one I like best appeared in the National Geographic. “An Aging Brain is Still Pretty Smart: it may be slower, but it has a wealth of information to draw from.

The article reports on the work of Michael Ramscar, a linguistics researcher at the University of Tubingen in Germany. His research revealed that cognitive “deficits” in aging were caused largely by the accumulation of knowledge –the brain slows down because it has to search a larger mental library of facts. Older wiser heads are so chock full of knowledge that it simply takes longer to retrieve the right bits.

Why 20-year-olds are not running the world

“There’s no denying that older people have acquired more experience and information than younger people,” says Denise Park of the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas at Dallas, whose research focuses on how the mind changes and adapts as people age. “As we age we accrue knowledge, have a higher vocabulary score and know more about the world,” says Park. “There’s a reason we don’t have 20-year-olds running the world.”

Her conclusion: “I strongly believe that our everyday performance does not decline with age.” That’s because as the ability to retrieve memories quickly declines, the brain is still building up stores of knowledge from which to draw.

If only we could do as Sherlock Holmes did: He allowed only pertinent clues, like shed hairs or scratched doorjambs to find a home in the brain. That’s what I tell myself and my worried friends. The brain is only storing the information it finds worthy of storing, what is pertinent.

Some scientists question this idea. But I like it and I’ll not bother with their quibbles.

Being Older but Wiser

There’s more feel good research that’s being written about. In tests on participants 10 – 89, measuring skills like memory for abstract symbols and strings of digits, problem solving and facility reading emotions from strangers’ eyes, “We found different abilities really maturing or ripening at different ages,” said another German researcher. “It’s a much richer picture of the life span than just calling it ageing.”

The picture that emerges from these findings is of an older brain that moves more slowly than its younger self, but is just as accurate in many areas and more adept at reading others’ moods – on top of being more knowledgeable. That’s a handy combination, given that so many important decisions people make intimately affect others.

What’s Normal: What’s Not

Blanking out on an acquaintance’s name, forgetting a phone number, or the title of a book is normal. But because memory loss is not an inevitable part of the aging process, it’s important to distinguish between what’s normal when it comes to memory loss and when you should be concerned.

With the increasing public awareness of the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease, many more of us are becoming alarmed. There is a difference between normal forgetfulness that may be due to stress or other factors and serious memory problems.

The primary difference between age-related memory loss and dementia is that the former isn‘t disabling. The memory lapses, say the majority of researchers, have little impact on your daily performance and ability to do what you want to do. Dementia, on the other hand, is marked by persistent decline in two or more intellectual abilities such as memory, language, judgment and abstract thinking.

When memory loss becomes so pervasive and severe that it disrupts your work, hobbies, social activities, and family relationships, you may be experiencing the warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease, or another disorder that causes dementia, or a condition that mimics dementia.
Then, it would be wise to seek advice.

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