Do My Cognitive Abilities Change as a Senior Citizen?

A Look at Aging (The Psychological Factors)

Communicating compassion for seniors' psychological, cognitive, mental changes can only be accomplished by understanding the changes they are experiencing.

1. Normal psychological changes that are part of the aging process

Seniors normally experience many beneficial mental and emotional changes with aging, as well as some inconvenient or annoying changes. Here are the findings of several scientific analyses of seniors' changing brain functions.

a. Memory

Some normal changes in memory function for seniors, which are not serious, include misplacing objects, forgetting names of social contacts, or where the car is parked. More serious memory impairment is not a normal process of healthy aging (see Alzheimer's discussion below).

Healthy seniors accumulate more and more data that the memory must grapple with. Thus, it is natural that seniors take longer to retrieve information. However, this increase in retrieval time does not adversely affect the thinking process.

It generally takes longer for oldsters to process a signal and response, according to the age-complexity hypothesis: A given task will require 1000 milliseconds for a young adult, and 1500 milliseconds for their elder. However, there is no change in the quality of the outcome once a task is completed.

b. Attention

Some scientists believe that seniors have a decreased ability to shut out distractions and focus on one thing. This is called inhibitory deficit hypothesis. This is remedied by keeping distractions to a minimum when enhanced attention is desired.

c. Problem Solving and Decision Making

Seniors have the advantage of the "rule-of-thumb" approach based upon experience: They can solve problems faster than younger people, without relying on outside advice. Their own record of successes gives them confidence lending to a quick decision.

Seniors can reject excess information that has no bearing on the decision at hand, whereas youngsters may weigh every conceivable thing in decision-making. Again, the older person's experience enables him to sift through and keep only information pertinent to the task at hand.

According to D.K. Simonton's work on successful aging, when compared with their juniors, seniors analyze problems in life with greater accuracy and determine the most beneficial course of action, due to their depth of experience. In addition, they often experience the height of their intellectual and creativity powers, and productivity:

This may be spurred on by awareness that they have limited time to make the best of their abilities, to enjoy life, or to contribute-leave a legacy. Galileo and Benjamin Franklin were both over age 70 when they built some of their most significant inventions. Michelangelo created his impressive work, Pieta Rondanini, at 89 years of age.

d. Intelligence

A process labeled "classic aging pattern" by Botwinick 1977, posits that intelligence peaks in young adulthood and then declines for the remainder of one's lifetime: But the Seattle Longitudinal Study (K. Warner Schaie) challenged this assumption. The study showed that there was no change in intelligence, and often improved intelligence in older people, when tested as young adults and then again at age 65 plus. This held true even for the oldest age group being tested.

e. Personality

Coping strategies are often more developed in seniors: They are better able to manage their emotions, and more flexible in goal achievement. Rather than setting challenging goals and being frustrated or defeated when they are not reached, they adjust goals to an attainable level. Conversely, young people are more likely to become angry or defeated about failure to achieve a goal.

F. Emotions

Seniors are more advanced emotionally, simply by virtue of having a greater number of experiences, and having their tenacity challenged by having to live through setbacks in life such as death, divorce, job loss and so on

Studies show that healthy seniors have a greater ability to maintain objectivity and emotional stability, and are slower to anger in adverse situations or interactions with others. They can think things through and call on experience to judge whether something is worth getting upset over.

Other findings on the mental health of seniors:

They typically don't become depressed: As they age, older people become better adapted to life's ups and downs, according to psychosocial development theory.

A research paper by Mroczek and Kolarz in 1998 describes a paradox of well being in their study of 32,000 people of all ages. They conclude that a majority of seniors have a positive self-image and consider themselves very happy or pretty happy. Seniors gain skills for maintaining a positive outlook as they mange difficult situations or events in life, and find that they can survive such events.

In a PBS television special, the story of 95 year old Stanley Kunitz was shared: He was awarded poet laureate status at age 95, and continued writing and sharing poems with audiences. He is a great example of the brain staying sharp well into old age.

Scientists' research has brought the demise of conventional wisdom that brain cells die off with age, rendering old people incapable of clear thinking and higher brain function. Neuroscientists report that we keep replenishing neurons into our seventies, and that most of our mental functions remain strong as we age. Further, the aging brain can build new intelligence based upon the wisdom of experience. The aging brain is very resilient, contrary to the beliefs of the past.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Aging and Long Term Care course?

2. Psychological problems and diseases common in seniors

a. Depression, stress and anxiety, angry, hostile or suicidal feelings,or threats to commit suicide

Physiological and emotional difficulties, as well as mental illness, can be related to abusive or unhealthy relationships with spouses, or even caregivers- both professional and familial. Other factors in poor mental health include drug abuse or addition, grief over a loss or inability to complete the grieving process, mental effects of physical pain or discomfort, poor quality of sleep (and insomnia), or neurosis which is linked to genetics.

The following suggestions will help seniors to manage or cure depression and maintain sound mental health. The best approach is to adhere to all of these lifestyle choices, and-if a doctor prescribes-treat depression with antidepressants or other medications.

Beat The Blues

Be a person with a plan, thus maintaining control of your life. Set aside time for financial planning, as adequate income is one of the major factors in good mental health in the senior years

Assure that you have rewarding social engagement

Eat a diet high in nutritional value and fi ber, and low in fat.

Exercise or engage in activities that require physical exertion.(Check with your doctor before beginning any exercise regimen or athletic pursuit.)

Maintain a specific focus by setting and pursuing goals-1 year, 3 years, 5 years and beyond.

Do not smoke, and limit alcohol consumption

b. Alcohol abuse or addiction

In general, seniors over age 65 should not drink more than seven alcoholic drinks a week-i.e. a typical mixed drink or glass of wine or beer-for some, less. They may have late onset drinking problems brought on by depression, or feelings of emptiness or loneliness precipitated by retiring from their jobs.

Since some seniors take more medication than the general population, they are at increased risk for dangers of combining medication with alcohol. Also they are more likely to have impaired functioning if they drink and drive. Even if they are fully sober, minor changes in reaction time can be an accident waiting to happen.

c. Alzheimer's and dementia

We noted that some changes in memory function are normal with aging. If the problem is more severe, such as Dementia, Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's, there will be more pronounced symptoms:

Difficulty planning and implementing activities: It's hard to make a list of needed supplies and navigate to the store to buy the listed items.

Meaning of words you have always known will be forgotten and it will be difficult to find words to express yourself, when in the past you had no trouble with this.

Poor recall of recent events
Difficulty with math calculations
Lack of judgment in the face of emergencies or problems
Losing the way going somewhere that in the past you knew very well
Difficulty remembering faces, including those of close friends and family

Alzheimer's disease can be extremely difficult for the senior and his or her family: The patient eventually does not know the family, loses knowledge once held, loses memories of that which makes him who he is: getting married, going to college, having children, and other significant events. The good news is that this isn't all or nothing -on good days some memories remain in tact. The patient may know their spouse when they visit at a care home one day, and the next day they may say, "Who are you?".

So, family members need to let go in cases where their loved one has no memory of their prior lives together.

Aging does not cause Alzheimer's, however the likelihood of getting it increases with age. About half of the world's population over age 85 suffers from Alzheimer's. Therefore, it is projected that the large increase in people in the US who will be turning age 85+ will bring a dramatic increase in numbers of Alzheimer's sufferers. By 2050 it should be about 14 million.

The disease continues over many years, and ultimately causes death.

Ongoing Alzheimer's research is being done and some potential treatments are hoped to alleviate or cure this devastating disease. Medications are available, which are beneficial for some Alzheimer's patients, some of the time.

Things that weaken memory

Certain medications, taking the wrong medication, or the wrong dose (too high, and in some cases too low a dose)

Drinking alcohol while taking medications

Reduction of blood circulation from cardiac problems, asthma

How to strengthen memory

Be sociable- social exchanges require mental agility, discussing events and recalling things that must be communicated

Get help if you are depressed-memory is diminished in depressed individuals

Get plenty of physical activity: According to Newsweek January 10, 2011 (Better Brain? By Sharon Begley), " A year of exercise can give a 70-year-old the brain connectivity of a 30-year-old, improving memory, planning, dealing with ambiguity, and multitasking."

Meditation or other relaxation and change of focus, accessing a deeper brain wave pattern. This is similar to the moments just prior to falling asleep.

Do things you have never tried before. It you are good at a difficult task, say crosswords, doing them won't help your memory-you are using the same mental processes over and over. When you tackle a new task or activity, you build novel connections among the information stored in your memory. So, if you have not done crosswords, taking them on enhances your mental acuity.

Any kind of new learning: Making a website, learning MS Word, how to shop online, assembling a shelf kit, repairing a fixture, taking tennis or chess lessons, going to a new town-noticing street names, volunteer or get a job doing something new for you, ad infinitum...

Eat nutritious foods and drink ample fluids

Develop the expectation that your memory will be there for you, avoiding the assumption that aging automatically means memory loss.

Limit use of medications-one of the main causes of memory problems in seniors.

Take classes in memory enhancement

Keep keys, glasses and such in designated places

Keep a calendar and lists rather than trying to keep it all in your head

For most situations, focus on one thing at a time, avoid splitting your attention among several things

3. A mentally healthy senior has the following key factors favorably influencing their psychological make up:

a) Positive Mental Outlook - when there are two ways to look at something and neither one is written in stone, opt for the positive outlook

b) Mental Stimulation - learning new things requiring mental muscles to stretch

c) Time set aside to do things enjoyable to you, not just what society considers enjoyable

d) Time for relaxation, such as meditation, walking, just sitting and contemplating things, taking in the scenery, napping, and so on

e) Acknowledgment of sexual nature, and desires met as appropriate for the individual.

f) Be aware of and get help for mental-emotional problems as needed:

A significant part of the brain's longevity relates to our emotions. The emotions are no longer thought of as nebulous ethereal occurrences. Emotions affect brain waves, and can be measured just as something we smell or see causes measureable brain activity.

g) Engage your body in physical activity daily - this pumps blood to the brain for mental clarity

h) Social involvement, connection to community or support group (family or non-traditional family).

The Journals of Gerontology, Medical Sciences (2010) reported the first study of its kind, conducted over a ten-year period, which addressed factors that lead to high quality of life for seniors. Prior studies had analyzed only the detrimental factors to well being for seniors. The journal reported the following key factors contributing to a high level of satisfaction in seniors' lives:

Positive Outlook - No chronic health conditions - Being a non-smoker

Consuming a moderate amount of alcohol - Relatively low stress level - Moderate to higher income

Over the 10 years these factors were analyzed and it was revealed that those who had many of these factors going for them at first reported a high quality of life, but those who did not maintain these factors over the ten years were no longer enjoying a high level of satisfaction at the conclusion of the study period.