28 April 2012

Mental and Physical Stimulation During Old Age Show Better Cognitive Performance And A Younger Brain

When a person ages, there is a decline in memory functions. This is called Age Related Memory Impairment (AMI) or Age Associated Memory Impairment (AAMI). There is difficulty in making new memories and working memory declines.

There are two major kinds of memory. Declarative memory and Procedural Memory.

Declarative memory refers to memories which can be consciously recalled such as facts and knowledge (country of birth, name of school). Procedural memory is memory for how to do things like driving a car.

The types of memories most likely to be affected are:
  • Episodic memory - memory of experienced events (times, places, associated emotions, and other contextual knowledge) that can be explicitly stated (ex.the first kiss).
  • Semantic memory - Memory derived from meanings, understandings, and other concept-based knowledge unrelated to specific experiences (ex. Knowing that rocks are not edible).
  • Short term memory - Memory that holds a small amount of information readily available for a short period of time (ex. a dictated phone number).
  • Priming - an effect on implicit memory which is a type of memory in which previous experiences aid in the performance of a task without conscious awareness of these previous experiences. Priming is similar to conditioning the brain to associate a word or image through subconscious or indirect means.

Out of these types, episodic memory is the most impaired in normal aging as well as short term memory. These impairments may be related to the brains decreased ability to gather information together during the encoding of the memory as well as its retrieving the associations later.

With old age, source information also declines. Source information is knowledge that includes where and when the information is learned. The ability to recollect the source and context of information is very important in daily decision-making. An example is the ability to recollect why one product or brand is more preferred than the other, why it is preferred, and how that information came to be.

Maintain your brain: The secrets to aging success

Aging may seem unavoidable, but that's not necessarily so when it comes to the brain. So say researchers in the April 27th issue of the Cell Press journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences explaining that it is what you do in old age that matters more when it comes to maintaining a youthful brain not what you did earlier in life.

"Although some memory functions do tend to decline as we get older, several elderly show well preserved functioning and this is related to a well-preserved, youth-like brain," says Lars Nyberg of Umeå University in Sweden.

Video: How Memory Works

Education won't save your brain -- PhDs are as likely as high-school dropouts to experience memory loss with old age, the researchers say. Don't count on your job either. Those with a complex or demanding career may enjoy a limited advantage, but those benefits quickly dwindle after retirement.

Engagement is the secret to success. Those who are socially, mentally and physically stimulated reliably show better cognitive performance with a brain that appears younger than its years.

"There is quite solid evidence that staying physically and mentally active is a way towards brain maintenance," Nyberg says.

The researchers say this new take on successful aging represents an important shift in focus for the field. Much attention in the past has gone instead to understanding ways in which the brain copes with or compensates for cognitive decline in aging. The research team now argues for the importance of avoiding those age-related brain changes in the first place. Genes play some role, but life choices and other environmental factors, especially in old age, are critical.

Elderly people generally do have more trouble remembering meetings or names, Nyberg says. But those memory losses often happen later than many often think, after the age of 60. Older people also continue to accumulate knowledge and to use what they know effectively, often to very old ages.

"Taken together, a wide range of findings provides converging evidence for marked heterogeneity in brain aging," the scientists write. "Critically, some older adults show little or no brain changes relative to younger adults, along with intact cognitive performance, which supports the notion of brain maintenance. In other words, maintaining a youthful brain, rather than responding to and compensating for changes, may be the key to successful memory aging."


Cell Press
Trends in Cognitive Sciences
Umeå University
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