Have you ever had a "senior moment" when your memory fails unexpectedly? Though it can happen at any age, it can often be an uncomfortable reminder that you are getting older.
Long recognized as an inevitable part of the aging process, most seniors tend to laugh these lapses off. Still, a slow decline in mental and physical functioning can seriously compromise quality of life, especially if it leads to neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's disease. And this is a problem that affects everybody. As the Baby Boom generation grows older, we are seeing a rapid growth in the number of seniors worldwide. By 2050, the number of adults over the age of 65 is expected to outnumber children by two to one. Though advances in geriatric care, improved public health measures, and rising standards of living are allowing people to live longer and more productively, the health care systems in most countries are already falling behind in the services available for many seniors, especially seniors suffering from dementia.
As part of a worldwide research initiative, geriatric researchers have been studying how the brain changes with age and how to prevent the devastating loss of cognitive functioning seen in many seniors. But, in studying how memory and cognition can decline in seniors, it is important to recognize that not all cognitive abilities will decline at the same rate. Working memory, usually defined as the ability to hold, process, and manipulate information on a short-term basis, seems especially vulnerable to aging (particularly after the seventh decade of life). Then there is long-term episodic memory or the recall of autobiographical information which can also be affected by aging.
Brain imaging research has shown that aging produces key changes in the brain including the thinning of gray matter in the cortex, decreased density of white matter fibres, expanding ventricles, depletion of essential neurotransmitters, and changes in brain networks. Some regions of the brain seem to be more affected than others however and, not surprisingly, those regions of the brain linked to working memory seem to show the greatest changes due to age. These include the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the superior parietal lobe, and the medial temporal lobe, all of which play a critical role in the encoding, storage, and retrieval of memories.
Along with the slow loss of cognitive functioning linked to aging, the aging brain can also become much more vulnerable to injury or disease. Concussions or other forms of brain damage can affect cognitive functioning at any age but younger brains can usually recover due to neuroplasticity. In older adults, this kind of brain damage can be much more serious and can often act as triggers for the development of dementias such as Alzheimer's disease or vascular dementia.
But are there ways of protecting the aging brain and preventing the loss of cognitive functioning? Along with pharmacological research to find medications that can prevent memory loss in seniors, other approaches are already showing promise. Exercise, for example, has been shown to have a small but significant impact on improved mental functioning in seniors while cognitive training programs can also improve working memory and executive functioning.
To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post.