While symptoms of aging can be concerning, some of what older adults experience is a completely normal part of the aging process.
The challenge is how to differentiate between the normal symptoms of aging and symptoms of something bigger such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or even mild cognitive impairment (MCI). The fact is that the brain will change with age and those changes will naturally impact certain functions even when healthy. On the other hand, some functions being altered may be a sign of a bigger problem.
As research regarding the brain proliferates, more knowledge about the normal aging process has come to light.
Normal Cognitive Aging
Brain function is broken down into certain areas such as memory, processing speed, attention, emotional processing, executive functioning and language skills. Of these areas, the following are areas where some level of decline is to be expected:
A measurement of how quickly the brain can process stimuli and provide a response, the speed at which our brains work naturally slows over time, from early adulthood well into our senior years. This may impact the ability to perform tasks that involve information being presented quickly, such as driving.
An intricate topic, there are numerous subtypes of memory which can categorized and interpreted differently. However, there are typically three types of memory which decline with age and do not commonly indicate a neurodegenerative condition.
- Working memory– involved in processing language and tasks such as problem solving or decision making, working memory involves our ability to hold information temporarily.
- Prospective memory– involved in making plans or thinking of the future, prospective memory loss often involves older adults forgetting something they need to do.
- Episodic memory– referring to memories specific to a time or place, declines in episodic memory complicates the older adult’s ability to remember recent events in particular.
Much like memory, attention is broken down into subtypes. They are:
- Divided attention– also known as multi-tasking, divided attention refers to our ability to manage multiple tasks or sources of stimuli at once.
- Selective attention– refers to the ability to remain focused on information despite distractions.
- Sustained attention– the ability to focus over a long period of time.
Of these three subtypes of attention, only sustained attention is typically unaffected by the passing of years.
Involving the ability to plan, solve problems, think creatively, be adaptive, stay organized and observe socially appropriate behavior, executive function typically declines as we age. This is particularly true for individuals over the age of 70.
A reference to the ability to understand or produce language, be it written or verbal.
Language skills such as vocabulary and comprehension of the written word typically remain stable in healthy brains, however, it is not uncommon for older adults to struggle when trying name things, retrieve words or understand people who speak quickly.
Signs of Healthy Cognitive Aging
It is not unusual to experience these aspects of aging. As long as the decline is slow it can be managed and, with some innovative treatments, slowed even further or stopped altogether. One area, according to a study published in the Journal of Psychology and Aging, which typically improves with age is emotional processing. This is important, because emotional processing can greatly affect other areas of cognitive function such as working memory and the ability to pay attention.
Older adults are more adept at regulating their emotions and moving beyond negative stimuli, making them more positive by nature. For the study, adults between the ages of 60 and 75 performed far better at regulating their emotional state than young adults between the ages of 20 and 30.
“Negative emotions can be toxic and disrupt one’s balance in life, so the ability of older adults to regulate negative emotions serves to enhance their quality of life,” noted Fredda Blanchard-Fields, the study’s lead author. “Older adults are so efficient at dealing with their emotions that it doesn’t cost them any decrease in performance, which is a really positive thing.” In the end, some cognitive decline just comes with age. Forgetting where you left your car keys or not remembering someone’s name you’ve just met are not signs of dementia or some greater issue. If you find you are forgetting more significant information, you may want to educate yourself on methods of detecting cognitive decline so that you can take steps to keep the abilities you have today.