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If old age is knocking at your door and you’re wondering how it’s going to treat your brain, you’re in for a treat.
Because research has shown that the old brain actually has advantages over the young brain, and many people have been surprised by this finding (and so are you, probably).
Nonetheless, negative brain changes are also a part of ageing, and by the time you finish this, you’ll know exactly what happened when you locked your car door while the key was at the ignition.
If you exercise well, eat healthy, are highly educated, and don’t go all out on alcohol, the brain changes we are about to discuss might spare you (for a little longer). But they will certainly come, and you need to be prepared for that.
So here are some pros and cons of ageing with regards to brain function.
1. Your episodic and semantic memories decline
Memory impairment is a major reason why people choose old houses such as Kew Gardens residential aged care, with things like ageing in place and brain training programs.
You have four types of memory — semantic, episodic, procedural, and working. And it’s the first two types that take a major hit with increasing age, although procedural and working memories also decline to some extent.
Episodic memory is (as the name applies) the ability to recall an episode. For example, when you describe your college shenanigans to your partner, you’re working out episodic memory. Episodic memory starts to decline after middle age, and no, it’s not dementia. So don’t get alarmed when you can’t recall an episode — give it some time and it will come back to you.
Semantic memory is the ability to recall words and concepts, and it’s important for communication. Knowing that a thousand meters make up a kilometer is an example. Understanding that the President is the country’s highest office would be another.
And unlike episodic memory, you may feel extremely annoyed when you start losing grip on semantic memory because it’s going to make communication a bit difficult.
Finally, working memory has also been shown to decline in some studies. This manifests as suddenly zoning out while doing something. Saying your actions out loud is an excellent way to deal with this. For example, as you drive through street XYZ, say it out aloud. I’m driving through street XYZ.
2. Your brain’s composition begins to change.
There’s a reason for all those memory problems. The cells of your brain begin to die and its weight declines at around 5% for every 10 years after you hit 40, according to research. Once you cross 70, this process accelerates.
Physically, this manifests as a very groovy brain. Your brain has natural grooves (called sulci) and as cells begin to die, these deepen. And the functional symptoms of this decline depend on the area of the brain where cells die the most, which is the prefrontal cortex in most people.
The prefrontal cortex lies just behind your forehead — it’s the first part of the brain a bullet would hit if someone is shot on the forehead. This area is responsible for making up our personalities and higher-order executive functions such as planning for the future, thinking logically, behaving appropriately in social situations, and focusing your attention.
So if you find it difficult to do any of these, know that cell death in the prefrontal cortex is at play. Interestingly, people with diseases affecting the prefrontal cortex may display dramatic disinhibition, such as laughing at a funeral or undressing in public. Luckily, old age doesn’t have such a dramatic effect on the prefrontal cortex!
A shrinking brain is also more susceptible to brain injury because it now has more room to move inside the skull. Blood vessels can tear as a result of this, causing a stroke. But you shouldn’t worry too much about this, unless you’re 90 and your head happens to shake wildly for some reason.
The chemical composition of your brain also changes with increasing age. Dopamine (the happiness or addiction neurotransmitter) and serotonin begin to fall. And reduction in dopamine is linked to decreases in cognitive function and motor performance.
3. The good things about an ancient brain
Just like everything, ageing also has a positive side when it comes to brain function. As cells begin to die, other areas of the brain compensate by increasing their activity, which makes older people better at certain things (than the proud youngster).
Add to this increased impulse control (due to reduced hormones), and you get a stable individual who’s great at problem-solving and reasoning. Older people are also more articulate when it comes to expressing their feelings, and part of the reason behind this is the immense vocabulary they’ve accumulated over a lifetime.
Finally, maths and the ability to feel positive and content are some other areas where older people beat the young. Old age isn’t all that bad, eh?
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