The verdict that the brain slows with age is well accepted in the study of medicine. Further, the thought that cognitive information-processing capacities decline as people age is also accepted as true. But guess what? There is much research that claims this may not be completely accurate or unavoidable.
Personally, I subscribe to the alternate view. Aside from ailments like Alzheimer’s and Lewy Body, which involve deposits of the protein fragment beta-amyloid (plaques) and twisted strands of the protein tau (tangles), the ability to recall and process information quickly may just be the cost of increased information — data. Think of a computer hard drive as being a human brain and the processor as being, just that, a processor. When your computer hard drive gets to be almost completely full, often the retrieval of data takes longer; the human brain functions in a similar way.
MEASURING COGNITIVE PERFORMANCE
In effort to understand how some researchers contest the claim that cognitive performance will tend to get worse with advancing age, we need to understand how cognitive processing and performance are measured in the aging.
Scientists who study thinking and memory often make a broad distinction between “fluid” and “crystallized” intelligence. Fluid intelligence consists of analytical reasoning, short-term memory and logic. Fluid intelligence tests measure someone’s ability to start with stated rules, premises or conditions, and to engage in one or more steps to reach a solution to a problem. It’s the ability to discover the underlying characteristic that governs a problem or a set of materials. An example of this would be a child’s drawing book with half a picture drawn and the remaining half in dots that need lines drawn between them.
Crystallized intelligence is the accumulation of knowledge, vocabulary and expertise. The ability to speak in daily life situations and the extent of one’s vocabulary that can be understood in terms of correct word meanings are examples of crystalized intelligence.
TESTING FOR MENTAL DECLINE
Traditionally, scientists tested cognitive decline by implementing psychometric tests. Such tests focus on information processing and organization of knowledge (“fluid” and “crystallized”). Both are time-tested and complex tools that are designed to assess people and measure the differences between individuals. They are designed and developed in such a way they can be shown to measure what they claim to measure with a reasonable degree of accuracy.
While psychometric tests may be objective, standardized instruments achieve precision by using well-controlled, uniform methods of administration and scoring; they involve heavy interaction with input devices to measure response times.
Such testing techniques may not take into account that older adults are often inclined to be cautious, pensive and may answer questions more slowly. Further, they may not take into consideration that a senior’s motor response time and that of a 20- to 30-something year old are quite different. For example, a 20- to 30-year-old person is more capable of quickly navigating a computer testing someone’s ability to group and separate similar objects compared to a 60- to 70-year-old person.
Further, these timed test scenarios may cause anxiety in seniors that reduce their ability as well. Perhaps input device research is not the most effective means of testing when motor skills are involved.
I believe that cognitive performance is expected to slow with age. It is understandable that a senior’s ability to process and query information takes longer than a younger person; their span of data may be far greater.
The older hard drive has to work harder to query its huge database, but is still good and useful. Perhaps a tune-up may be in need.
Seniors who continue to challenge themselves intellectually keep their hard drives sharp and in tune. Reading, puzzles, exercise and social interaction can greatly aid in staving off cognitive decline.
“Youth longs and manhood strives, but age remembers.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Judson Haims is the owner of Visiting Angels Home Care in Eagle County. For more information, go to www.visitingangels.com/comtns or call 970-328-5526.