New study urges aging brains to stay sharp


The brain ages just like the rest of a body, says a new re­port that urges se­niors to take steps to keep sharp.

The pres­ti­gious In­sti­tute of Medicine ex­am­ined what sci­en­tists know about “cog­ni­tive aging,” changes in men­tal func­tion­ing as we get older.

This isn’t a dis­ease like Alzheimer’s but a nat­u­ral process — and it’s not al­ways bad. Wis­dom can in­deed in­crease with age, and years of ex­pe­ri­ence can prove in­valu­able, stressed Dr. Dan Blazer, an emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try at Duke Uni­ver­sity who chaired the IOM com­mit­tee.

“The brain ages in all of us. But there’s wide vari­abil­ity in the way the brain ages,” Blazer said.

Stay­ing cog­ni­tively sharp is one of the big­gest con­cerns of se­niors, with good rea­son. Tues­day’s re­port warns that even sub­tle slow­downs can af­fect daily life, mak­ing se­niors more vul­ner­a­ble to fi­nan­cial scams, driv­ing prob­lems or other dif­fi­cul­ties in a tech­nol­ogy-driven world.

In­deed, while some peo­ple will ex­pe­ri­ence lit­tle if any cog­ni­tive change, many older adults process in­for­ma­tion more slowly, and have more dif­fi­culty mul­ti­task­ing than when they were younger, the re­port found. What’s called work­ing mem­ory — the brain’s short-term stor­age — of­ten de­clines with age but typ­i­cally long-term mem­ory re­mains in­tact even if it takes longer to re­call some­one’s name.

That kind of change may not be ob­vi­ous un­til, say, some­one is faced with a com­plex fi­nan­cial de­ci­sion or forced to make a trans­ac­tion quickly and has trou­ble, Blazer said. Older adults are los­ing nearly US$3 bil­lion a year, di­rectly and in­di­rectly, to fi­nan­cial fraud, the re­port noted.

What’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween nor­mal aging and cog­ni­tive decline?

“There’s no clear line that we can draw here,” Blazer cau­tioned.

Some­one experiencing mem­ory dif­fi­culty needs to be checked by a doc­tor, said IOM pan­elist Dr. Ja­son Kar­law­ish of the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia. With Alzheimer’s, nerve cells in the brain die. With nor­mal cog­ni­tive aging, neu­rons don’t die — they just don’t work as well, he ex­plained.

The best ad­vice for stay­ing sharp as you get older: Be phys­i­cally ac­tive. The sooner you start the bet­ter, but it’s never too late, Blazer said. The IOM also rec­om­mended: — Con­trol high blood pres­sure and di­a­betes, and don’t smoke. Those are key risks for heart dis­ease, and what’s bad for your heart is bad for your brain.

— Some med­i­ca­tions com­monly taken by se­niors — in­clud­ing cer­tain anx­i­ety or sleep drugs, an­ti­his­tamines, blad­der drugs and older an­tide­pres­sants — can fog the brain, so ask about yours.

— Keep so­cially and in­tel­lec­tu­ally ac­tive. — Get enough sleep. — Be care­ful of prod­ucts that claim to im­prove cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing. There’s no ev­i­dence that vi­ta­mins and di­etary sup­ple­ments like ginkgo biloba help, Blazer said. And the jury’s still out on whether com­puter-based brain-train­ing games do any good, he said.

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