Understanding about the human brain is always evolving, and old myths are dispelled. For example, until the 1990s, it was widely believed that once a person reached adulthood, they could not form new brain cells. But now neuroscientists recognize that new brain cells do develop even much later in life.
Another long-held belief is that as we get older, our memory function inevitably declines. Many people worry about dementia, and every slip of memory in middle age can become a cause of concern. However, we all probably know people in their 80s or beyond with excellent memory functioning, and sharp minds.
Which direction will our own mind take? A research study just published in Topics in Cognitive Science might offer some relief. A team of German researchers from the University of Tübingen concluded that as normal brains age, they may not seem to function as well as younger brains not because they are failing, but because their brains are filled with more information, and need more time to filter through all the material.
The findings surprised the researchers themselves. Said lead author Dr. Michael Ramscar, “What shocked me, to be honest, is that for the first half of the time we were doing this project, I totally accepted the idea of age-related cognitive decline in healthy adults.” But the research “slowly forced me to entertain the idea that I didn’t need to apply the [accepted doctrine] of decline at all.”
Most normal, educated older people, because they have been around longer, know many more words than a younger person. But up to now, most research comparing the brains of 20-year old and an educated 70-year old did not take that difference into account.
Further, as noted by psychologist Laura Carstensen of Stanford University, many older people tend to use their brains in a more “positive” manner when they make associations between words. Most memory research up to now did not take these factors into consideration, and so older people were at a disadvantage in testing.
Memory researchers often divide memory and intelligence into two broad categories: “Fluid” intelligence, and “Crystallized” intelligence. Fluid intelligence is what you use to hold a phone number in your mind, and to exclude distractions when you are learning something.
“Crystallized” intelligence or memory is the accumulation of words, experiences, and knowledge a person has built up over their lifetime. What the German researchers showed is that as we age, our crystallized intelligence becomes larger, and this seems to slow our fluid abilities.
You might think of normal, educated adult brain like a computer with a more full hard drive; and it may take longer to sort through all the files to find the “file” or word the person/computer is searching for.
Of course a significant number of older people can and do develop various forms of dementia, but the good news is that if you avoid those diseases, your brain can keep functioning just fine.
This German study has received lots of attention from the scientific community, and further studies will surely be done to see if this new theory is valid or not. In the meantime, here in Mais Saúde we will continue to present plenty of things you can do to help you become one of those 90 year olds’ with an amazing memory.
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