One of the unfortunate realities of getting older is that our brains undergo structural changes that make it difficult to maintain the same levels of concentration, focus and memory that we enjoyed when we were younger. Most of our cognitive abilities increase from childhood up to about age 30, after which they very gradually begin to decline. But don’t lose heart. For one thing, those changes can be so subtle that some people don’t even notice an appreciable difference until very late in life. For another, although we may lose certain specific skills, other areas of cognition continue to improve with age.

Cognitive function changes with age

The longer we live, the more our brains physically shrink, losing about 5% of volume every 10 years after the age of 40. Besides that loss of volume, we also undergo structural and chemical changes to the hippocampus, the part of the brain most closely associated with memory, and the frontal lobes, which play a key role in executive function (planning, organizing and exercising self-control to complete tasks). Less blood reaches our brains, and the communication that occurs between brain cells becomes less efficient as we lose neurons, receptors, and neurotransmitters. Finally, inflammation caused by physical and emotional stressors damages brain cells over time. All of those factors combined result in significant changes to how—and how well—the brain stores and later retrieves new information.

Some of the cognitive loss that we experience is unrelated to physical changes in the brain. Research suggests a link between age-related decreases in or dysregulation of sex hormones (primarily estrogen and testosterone) and age-related cognitive decline. Social isolation can play a role, too, with many seniors becoming less socially active as they age, which we know can cause a drop-off in cognition and memory. And people who are in physical discomfort from age-related aches and pains often feel distracted and unable to concentrate, or they take pain medications that can cause brain fog.

It’s not just pain medications that might slow our thinking. Sleeping pills, anti-anxiety meds, antihistamines, antidepressants and other drugs can all affect our ability to think clearly. As we age, our livers and kidneys begin to operate more slowly, such that it takes longer to clear a drug from our system. At the same time, our bodies tend to lose muscle and gain fat, and since many medications are stored in fat cells, they may accumulate there, making us more vulnerable to their side effects than younger people.

Loss of cognitive function

As you might expect with so many changes occurring in our brains, bodies, and lives, certain types of cognition usually diminish with age. Older people often find themselves struggling to come up with facts or words they know, they may become more easily distracted or less able to pay attention, they may discover that it takes them longer to learn and recall new information, and they may find it harder to multi-task than when they were younger.

All is not lost

At first blush, it seems rather bleak to think that our bodies and minds will betray us with time. It’s easy to become fatalistic, imagining that it’s all downhill from here and that we might as well give up. But there’s some very good news:

  • By tweaking our learning strategies, we can pick up new information as well as ever
  • Some hugely important cognitive functions are entirely unaffected by aging
  • Some aspects of cognition actually get better with age
  • There’s a lot you can do to delay the onset of cognitive decline

Learn like a grown-up

You can still learn new skills, increase your vocabulary, improve your language abilities and much more.  It’s just that, once your body and brain have begun to change, you might not be able to rely on the learning strategies with which you breezed through school. Accepting the fact that it now takes you longer to absorb and process new information will go a long way toward helping you overcome these new challenges.

For example, the fact that your brain may now contain fewer receptors can make it harder to concentrate. It can also mean that by the time you’ve fully processed a concept, some of the information within it will have already fallen out of your working memory and will need to be relearned. You might therefore need to train yourself to ask more questions, take more breaks, commit to more study and review, and give yourself more time on each step in your learning journey. If you simply try to devote the same 30 minutes to a lesson that you would have 20 years ago, you might fail to remember the material and then write it off as age-related memory loss, when in fact you hadn’t properly learned the material to begin with.

Older adults who tweak their learning strategies can do just as well as younger people, especially since emerging research suggests that despite its structural changes, the brain will continue to adapt and form new pathways throughout a person’s lifetime.

What escapes unscathed

Some of the most important aspects of cognition are not at all affected by aging, and we’d do well to celebrate the fact that, short of dementia, most of us will never have a problem with them. For example, we never lose our ability to make sense of what we know or what we’ve learned. Our ability to form sound judgments remains intact, as does our ability to argue using reason.

Two types of memory, semantic memory and procedural memory, also remain untouched by aging. Semantic memory is about concepts—for example, knowing that an oil filter captures impurities in your vehicle’s engine oil. Procedural memory is about processes—knowing how to do an oil change in your car.

What improves with age

Reading skill and vocabulary improve for as long as we continue to exercise our brains. Older adults have been shown in study after study to have better vocabularies, as well as a greater depth of understanding of the meaning of words, than younger people.

And the old stereotypes are true: We get wiser with age. The more we’ve seen and lived through, the more accurate a picture of the world we’re able to produce. Couple that hard-earned map of the world with our intact ability to form judgments, and it becomes evident that older adults truly should be valued for their insights and perspectives.

What you can do

As you age, it may become harder to exercise, eat right and get enough sleep. But all of those things have been shown again and again to delay cognitive decline. A study by researchers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, found that older people who ate using the DASH diet and exercised three days per week were able to reverse the effects of aging on their executive function by an average of nine years.

Staying active and engaging in socially and intellectually stimulating activities have also been shown to protect cognition. Researchers at Simon Fraser University in Canada found that seniors who engaged in a wide variety of such activities were less likely to experience memory deficits than those with a narrow field of activity, and that this effect increased with age.

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