Age and Mind: What Inhibits Our Cognitive Abilities and How to Keep Them Sharp


What scares us when we contemplate old age? The major concerns revolve around losing physical power and activity and faltering health; women, of course, dread losing their youthful look. We all have our personal insecurities, yet there will be one more factor that is equally daunting to all of us, the fear of diminishing memory and relentlessly fading cognitive abilities.

Memory is our everything, everything that we ever had and have now. It is the definitive storage of decisions, choices, deeds, and achievements. We comprise not only the physicality but the augmented value of everything we ever created and gave to this world.

If, accidentally, tomorrow you wake up and fail to recall at least one-tenth of your life memories, would it not mean that you have diminished by one-tenth? And whatever was funny in watching a cartoon or movie about elderly characters who can not find where they put their glasses or what day it was, hardly any of us would like to find ourselves in their shoes.

Does our brain really fail with age? Well, the truth is that not that grim. In fact, we have some good news for you.

At what age does our memory capacity peak?

The part of the brain responsible for cognitive abilities and memory is called the hippocampus, which has one peculiar feature. New neural connections formation never stops.

The longer we live, the more often we return to our memories, and the more we load this very hippocampus — the bigger it should be. And our memory gets better.

At first glance, this statement sounds fancy and contradicts life experience, given that everyone has seen elderly people who could not remember what exactly they wanted to buy in the store, interrupted their story because, by the middle, they forgot where they started or repeated the same thing again and again since they did not remember that they already spoke about it.

But science refutes our observations and claims: it is at 70 that our memory is at its peak. And the slippery descent, which begins shortly after 70, should be subtle and unhurried enough for grandparents to easily suppress their children and grandchildren in the relevant tests.

A new study from neuroscientists at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), “The rise and fall of cognitive skills,” conducted in 2015, has turned everything we knew about the development of memory and cognitive abilities on its head.

While earlier researchers believed that a person accumulates the maximum reserve of the “vocabulary parameter,” which is a sort of “memory storage” (also known as crystallized intelligence), by the age of 55, a new study with the participation of 50 thousand volunteers showed that the peak does not come until 70 years old.

However, this does not mean that previous researchers were wrong. The authors of the study believe that such an impressive difference is attributed to the fact that in recent decades, people study longer, take on new courses, acquiring new professions; they google curious things every single day, which means the process of learning as such does not stop. Besides, today there are many more opportunities for intellectual stimulation for older people. Thus, retirement means even more freedom for self-development!

The younger, the smarter?

We often hear “the young and fast,” “young, agile mind,”… Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated once, “Young people are just smarter,” – do all these common beliefs have any tangible ground? At what age does our mind process new information fastest?

When are we capable of the most impressive discoveries and intellectual achievements? An experiment by Massachusetts psychologists told us something about this. Most of the studies that seem to confirm that our cognitive abilities are at their best, specifically at a young age, are fine for many points, except one. In most of them, the test subjects were school kids and students. Wish is exactly literally the “young” brains.

But with the development of the global network, people of all ages could participate in such experiments, and one by one, they started defying the stereotype.

One of the more recent experiments, where about 3 million people worldwide took part, came to a firm conclusion: the ability for face recognition reaches its effectiveness peak at the age of 30, and not 20, as people used to think. The same can be said about short-term visual memory: its maximum level falls at the age of “a little over 30,” and then a very slow decline begins.

Moreover, the study has shown that technically there is no particular cognitive peak that would be common for all the cognitive skills as was previously believed. Different cognitive skills develop at different periods of life and reach their maximum at different ages.

The speed of the information processing ability does not leave much room for maneuvering: its peak falls on 18-19 years, and after this milestone, it only declines. Yes, you will never solve problems faster than in youth, alas.

By the way, short-term memory keeps growing up till about age 25. At this point, it reaches a plateau, freezes on it for about ten years, and after 35 years of age, begins to decline gradually.

The ability to assess the emotional state of people, which is arguably the most important component of emotional intelligence and becomes a more and more popular skill nowadays, reaches its peak only by the age of 50.

Do elderly people think differently?

One more curious research, “Diffusion Model Analysis of Developmental Changes in Speeded Responses,” with its results published in 2011, claims that there is no significant difference between the quality of the brain work of the young and the old. The slower work speed of the elderly is explained by the fact that their nervous system takes longer to check its own decisions. With some practice, it is possible to “accelerate” the brain to the level of young people.

In the end, the construction of new neural connections continues throughout our lifetime, and their intensity depends not so much on age as on how much we put our brains to work. If some functions deteriorate over the years, then the rest either remain at the same level or can even progress altogether, making up for the functions of lagging “colleagues.”

What causes our brain to age?

As with our body, brain health depends on our lifestyle more than on any external factors (except for a car crash with severe consequences, of course). Here are the top habits that can speed up your brain aging.

You neglect your hearing

A 2011 study by Johns Hopkins University (USA) found a direct link between hearing loss and an increased risk of dementia. According to scientists, it may be attributed to the fact that loss of hearing leads to social isolation, which, in turn, ignites dementia. It is increasingly important to check the hearing, especially in older age. Otherwise, if prompt measures are not taken, the dementia risk may increase fivefold!

You don’t take care of your heart

The health condition of your heart is directly related to the condition of your brain: the stronger the heart is, the more robust its work in pumping blood and delivering the precious vitamins and nutrients throughout the entire organism and the brain. Therefore, it is critical to pay close attention to and monitor the condition of your heart. A US study from 2017 published as “Associations Between Midlife Vascular Risk Factors and 25-Year Incident Dementia in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Cohort,” proves that people who suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension, dementia developed significantly more often.

You sit too much

Recently, a sedentary lifestyle has been included in the list of factors that increase the risk of premature death. We become less healthy but also less smart when we sit too much on the cozy couch and forget about physical activity. If you decide not to give up and decrease the risk of dementia by 88%, this study (Midlife cardiovascular fitness and dementia) provides compelling evidence that regular exercise is a powerful solution!

You don’t catch up with your relatives and friends

Not breaking the ties with your nearest and dearest is a sure way to prevent not only the feeling of loneliness but also dementia. The older we get, the more essential social connections become for us. Among other things, constant communication with loved ones reduces stress, which is directly related to the development of dementia in old age. The likelihood falls by 44% for people who at elderly ages, enjoy active social bonds, according to research, “Anxiety symptoms in amnestic mild cognitive impairment are associated with medial temporal atrophy and predict conversion to Alzheimer’s disease.”

You worry too much

Learning to relax and resist stress and anxiety at an early age is vital. If you read the results of the 2014 study called  “Anxiety symptoms in amnestic mild cognitive impairment are associated with medial temporal atrophy and predict conversion to Alzheimer’s disease,” published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, you’ll realize that people with frequent anxiety have a higher risk of rapid cognitive decline, up to 135%! Therefore, learn to control your emotions, meditate and find your own ways to deal with stress — your brain will be very grateful.

You stick to trans fats

If there were a contest for the most harmful product, trans fats would have a landslide victory. For those who still don’t get it: these are unsaturated fatty acids tampered with in a special way and are found in hydrogenated oil, margarine, vegetable, and cooking fats.

Almost every system in our body is affected when we eat foods high in trans fats, and the brain is no exception. Just keep in mind that the risk of Alzheimer’s disease is increased when we eat something fatty and unhealthy.

In sound mind and clear memory

Due to the mind-blowing advances in science and medicine, the information society, and diverse options for leisure time, we have almost inlimited access to information. We enjoy communication on an international level, and, most importantly, we can continue to study. These fantastic possibilities afford us greatest benefits to not only our physical health but also our cognitive capacity, thus leveling up our wellness. Just think about it – there are literally no limitations to preserving our memory power and the speed of thinking. So, is it really so scary to age?

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