By 2020, there will be over 88.5 million Americans over the age of 65, double the number that there were in 2010. As the elderly population grows, research is seeking to further understand how cognitive function changes with age. While dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and mild cognitive impairment are fairly common within the elderly community, even people without these disorders experience changes in cognitive function as they get older. It is important to understand how these changes affect the elderly in their day-to-day lives, while preventing cognitive aging as much as possible.
The biggest risk factor for cognitive decline is aging: As you grow older, your brain begins to function differently. For many people, cognitive decline is a gradual slope. Genetics and lifestyle can contribute to forgetfulness, however, aging remains the main contributing factor. Not all cognitive function declines as you get older. Some studies have found that certain skills like vocabulary are immune to aging and may actually improve with age, while skills like conceptual reasoning, attention, memory, and processing speed can change over time.
One of the most common skills to decline with age is memory. Memory decline may be due to slower processing speeds and increased difficulty ignoring irrelevant information. As people get older, they typically engage in fewer activities that can serve as learning and memory exercises for the brain.
Processing speed is how fast cognitive functions are performed by the brain. This skill may start to decrease as early as age 30 and continues as one gets older. Many of the changes people experience as they get older are due to slower processing speed. A decline in processing speed can affect regular activities like reading, doing math, listening or taking notes, and having conversations.
Attention refers to the ability to concentrate and focus on specific things. Getting older means that one’s attention span usually decreases. This typically happens around age 50, with the greatest amount of decline observable in complex tasks, like multitasking. The ability to multi-task severely decreases as one gets older.
Cognitive decline, to some degree, is inevitable. However, there are some things that can be done to prevent decline and maintain cognitive functionality as much as possible. Scientists are currently developing a klotho protein treatment designed to delay cognitive aging. In animal experiments, klotho protein has been shown to extend lifespan by 30% and significantly improve spatial and working memory. A similar treatment intended for humans is currently being worked on by researchers.
Aside from treatment, there are a few tools and exercises that can be used to prevent cognitive decline. Studies have found that adopting a Mediterranean diet has a positive impact on mental functioning. A Mediterranean diet means lots of fish, vegetables, and olive oil, with little to no red meat. Staying physically active also greatly contributes to a healthy mind. In addition, keeping your mind challenged and learning new things can delay cognitive decline.