As we age, our whole body changes. The same is true for the brain. The most common structural change is brain atrophy as neurons, and mostly connections between neurons, die. In terms of functional changes, age-related cognitive decline typically starts at about forty when the brain processing speed slows down.
Dr. Jerri Edwards, whose interview you will find at the end of Chapter 5, defines processing speed as “mental quickness”. Younger brains process information faster than older brains. Young and old brains can accomplish the same tasks but the older brains will do so more slowly. In our daily life, the speed at which we process incoming information can be crucial. This is the case for instance when one is driving and has to assess the situation and take decision in a 1/45th of a second.
Along with speed of processing, other brain functions decline over time. The decline typically happens in areas that underlie our capacity to learn and adapt to new environments, such as problem-solving in novel situations, memory, attention, mental imagery, vision, hearing, dexterity and flexibility. Generally, getting older reduces both one’s ability to focus and the capacity for learning new information. As we age, it takes more and more inhibition skills to tune out distractions and stay focused. Of course, individuals vary in how and when they experience these decreases, but they will eventually occur.
At the same time, growing older generally means that one has acquired more knowledge and wisdom. Indeed, some functions do tend to improve with age, such as vocabulary and other word-related language skills, pattern recognition and emotional self-regulation. In general, skills that depend heavily on accumulated experience tend to improve. Wisdom can be seen as the ability that enables us to solve problems efficiently, develop empathy and insight, and refine moral reasoning. For example, as judges tackle more complex cases, they develop wisdom or an intuition for solutions and strategies.
In sum, as long as the environment does not change too rapidly, we tend to continue to accumulate valid wisdom throughout our lives, yet our capacity to process and deal with change declines.
This new online resource is based on the content from the book The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness (May 2009, $19.95), by Alvaro Fernandez and Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg.