S2E10. The Aging Brain: Part II

In the previous episode (S2E9), I summarized the first four lectures in the video course “The Aging Brain.” Here are my takeaways from lectures 5-8:

5. First the bad news: the age-related brain changes described last week are not the only ones that affect our performance as we age. There are others…and more being identified all the time. 

Sorry! 😦

However…it appears that our brains can re-wire themselves to compensate for these deficits by recruiting more areas of the brain to perform the tasks we face. 

We might utilize additional forward areas of the brain when undertaking tasks that are normally processed toward the back of our brains. Or we might use regions in both hemispheres to accomplish tasks that were managed in only one hemisphere when we were younger. Bottom line: our brains significantly reduce the errors they make by using this adaptive strategy.

Although it wasn’t mentioned in the lecture, I can’t help but think that this is related to ‘brain resilience’ and ‘cognitive reserve’ which have been identified as protective measures against cognitive decline and dementia. (See S2E1.)

In any event, it’s nice to know that we have a fighting chance!

6. Here’s the really good news: people in their 60s and 70s say they are happier and more satisfied with their life than those in their 20s and 30s! We are less angry, less anxious, have less social conflict and report fewer regrets.

Current thinking posits that, realizing our time on this planet is drawing to an end, we narrow our activities and relationships (when possible) to things and people that we really enjoy. We don’t suffer fools gladly and we don’t defer gratification. As a result, we spend more time doing things that we like and are generally happier than we were when we were younger and ‘paying our dues’ to get ahead.

Nonetheless, we are not immune to developing depression in our advanced years. Retirement, the death of a spouse, and age-related health problems can all trigger a depressive episode…and depression is a risk factor for dementia. To make matters worse, cognitive symptoms of depression can mimic dementia in the elderly.

7. We know that our memory capabilities drop off as we age, but there are any number of strategies you can use (if you’re willing to invest the time to get good at them) to compensate…or you can just write things down when you hear them!

Here are the keys to remembering: 

  • We remember things better when they are interesting and we think deeply about them. 
  • Visuospatial images are remembered better than words or numbers.
  • Connecting new information to things we already know improves our memory of them.
  • Testing ourselves on new information enhances later recall. In fact, reading something once and then testing yourself on it leads to better recall than studying the information for a longer period of time without testing. Who knew?

So to improve your memory of new information, think about it in depth, visualize it, put it into the context of your own life experiences, and then test yourself on it. Piece of cake, right?

8. The final lecture covered this week was on dementia. It was taped in 2016, so it’s a bit dated. The explanation for the emergence of Alzheimer’s is that the accumulation of plaques and tangles exacerbates the normal loss of brain tissues, leading to observable deficits, i.e., symptoms.

Since there is no cure and the few approved medications only provide a modicum of short-term relief, what can one do to try to ward off the onset of dementia? It boils down to two things: stay active and eat right! Sound familiar?

That’s it for this week. In next week’s final set of lectures, we’ll take a look at things you can do to age well…and then take a peek at the science of immortality.

Have a great week!

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