We all fear losing our minds and memories. One of the reasons why many fear old age is because we believe that cognitive abilities decline. There are many negative images of older people that suggest that they are forgetful and even mentally incompetent.
So what does the evidence show? Cognitive functioning can be assessed by means of short tests and research has revealed two distinct patterns. The first suggests that performance declines with old age. The other suggests that performance remains stable across adult years. These two patterns reflect a reduction in the ability to acquire or manipulate information. This is bound to vary considerably between us all. It is worth noting that the differences seem to be independent of both the amount of education and the health status in the individual.
How does the research relate to our observations? Let us remind ourselves that older people function perfectly well on old age. They interpret bus timetables; learn new skills and embark on foreign travel. Older people have adapted and survived a range of challenging and sometimes stressful experiences. Many older people continue to drive well into their 70s and 80s.
Some have argued that age related influences actually begin in early and mid-adulthood and so strategies should begin then to help people age well. In other words when examining cognitive differences there may be little difference between people in their 30s and those in their 50s.
Second age related changes are not, as one might imagine, directly related to education or health. There is little evidence to suggest that these widely held assumptions can explain how our minds age.
Third we should be surprised at how few people are affected by cognitive decline. Our abilities remain stable from our 20s through to our 70s. This all adds up to show us that there are few or no age-related influences on measures of accumulated knowledge. These declines are not restricted or limited to certain groups of people. This means that we must ask what it is that helps us to maintain such success in a variety of such different activities. There are two key ingredients:
· Establishing Priorities and
· Capitalizing on one’s own strengths
We need to see how best we can direct our limited time in the directions that can be most productive. Here are three specific strategies for successful cognitive ageing.
We should avoid those situations that reveal our deficits. We might shift from activities that stress our fluid or processing efficiency abilities that may decline with age to those activities place a premium on the crystallized or cumulative knowledge abilities that are either preserved or increased with age. So it might follow that an experienced practioner might move into a mentoring position where their accumulated knowledge can be shared with others. We must learn to value the wisdom that comes with experience.
This model creates an active or deliberate substitution of processes so that functioning is maintained through a modification of activity. So an obvious example is someone who has difficulties with memory and who minimizes the consequences in the form of greater reliance on notes or lists. Older people develop more regular habits which help the performing of the activity or accomplishing goals.
Here some type of intervention is introduced to restore one’s ability. The most obvious example is the restoration of muscle wastage by exercise.
There is considerable research to suggest that adults of all ages can benefit from a range of interventions. We need to know our own capabilities and be more conscious of the effects of our ageing process on us. We shall need both support and advice to understand what shape age takes for us. Some will age less well physically – while others struggle to keep mind and memory creative. We need to know and capitalize on our strengths and minimize weaknesses to live as well as circumstances allow us to.