There are a number of physical challenges we encounter as we age. These include muscle loss, a harder time getting around, and a greater risk of injury. Just like our bodies change when we get older, our brains change too.
Age can impact our cognitive development in many different ways, some of which can be slowed down or prevented. There are also habits we can create to help manage cognitive decline as we age. In this article, you will learn the different effects age has on the brain and how implementing various brain exercises can help keep your brain strong!
Cognitive development in its smallest stages begins when we are newborns and sees its final stage when we are in middle adolescence to early adulthood. Parents are often concerned with their child’s cognitive development and promoting brain growth and function, but cognitive development is something to think about in older age as well. Cognitive development can see small indicators of decline as early as age 45. Below are some of the most common effects of age on cognitive development, both positive and negative.
Effect of Aging on Memory
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), short-term memory does not show a decline with age. One study shows that older adults were generally unaffected in their ability to recall information given only a few moments prior. So, for the most part, age does not negatively impact short-term memory, which is great news!
When people think of the effects that age can have on cognitive development, long-term memory is one of the first factors that come to mind. Memory lapses of important family experiences or other long-term memories or knowledge are often reported in older adults. One of the reasons long-term memory is affected by age is its retrieval process. Unlike information that you learned two minutes ago, memories or knowledge that are years old can be difficult for older adults to retrieve due to the brain’s decline in this ability.
This form of memory is part of our working memory and consists of any knowledge related to skills we have learned. These could include playing an instrument, tying your shoe, remembering how to read a book, or drive a car. These memories are often unaffected by age. Even patients with Alzheimer’s disease are usually able to continue doing these things, despite their severe memory loss. If you are experiencing any form of memory loss, your procedural memory will most likely remain unaffected.
Effect of Aging on Attention
Divided Attention and Multitasking
Divided attention and multitasking describe the ability to focus on two or more things at the same time. This form of attention is typically more difficult for older adults and is associated with the effects of aging on our brains. In one study, research shows that older adults are more affected by divided attention and multitasking than younger adults.
Prolonged Attention Spans
Prolonged attention, otherwise referred to as sustained attention, refers to the ability to concentrate on a task for an extended period of time. Research shows that older adults are actually unaffected in their abilities to concentrate and stay focused on one thing, so this aspect of your cognitive development will likely remain the way it is.
Effects of Aging on Language and Speech Skills
Despite the seemingly negative effects that age can have on cognition and our brain’s development, studies have found that language and speech skills may actually increase with age! Where you may feel like you have a hard time focusing on more than one thing at a time or recalling information from the past, you probably excel when telling stories or speaking. Neuroscientists have studied the connection between age and the language area of the brain and have found no decline or damage typically sustained.
Cognitive changes in your brain are easy to notice and measure. You will likely notice your memory slipping or forgetting things, and you can likely identify what kind of memory or attention-related cognitive behavior is affected. However, did you know there are actual structural changes in your brain that occur as we age that can also affect cognitive development?
Neuronal changes describe physical changes to the neurons in our brains. Neurons are responsible for sending messages to our muscles to contract, our glands to secrete, and our nerve cells to react to stimuli. Neurons are made up of branches called dendrites that extend to other neurons to pass along signals, receivers for these signals called axons, and fatty sheaths that protect the transmissions as they travel through your nerves.
As we age, however, these structural parts of neurons can become damaged. The dendrites shorten or retract, the axon deteriorates, the myelin sheath thins, and the neurons can shrink. These changes can have large implications on cognitive development and can cause severe decline. As our bodies age, our neurons deteriorate. They can become impaired, and our bodies’ communication can decline. As we age, the process by which new neurons are made also declines. In fact, when we are adults, scientists find little to no evidence that we continue making new neurons at all, which means it’s important to take care of the ones we have.
Just like the production of new neurons lessens with age, our bodies also produce fewer chemical messengers. Also called hormones, these chemical messengers travel through the blood and send signals to various body organs to perform certain functions. However, as we age, there are fewer receptors for these messengers and thus fewer signals sent. Research shows that even mild cognitive impairment in those 60 to 70 can result in a severe lack of serotonin and dopamine.
Exercises for Cognitive Decline
Just like exercising can help reduce muscle loss and yoga can improve flexibility and strength, there are exercises you can perform for your brain that can help your mind stay sharp as you age.
One of the best ways to prevent and treat cognitive decline may surprise you. Engaging in hobbies can reduce the risk of developing dementia and memory loss. According to this study, the best hobbies that help prevent memory loss and other forms of cognitive decline are arts and crafts, book clubs or other social activities, surfing the internet, traveling, going to concerts, and watching movies. Of all of these hobbies, arts and crafts had the biggest effect on memory improvement. The study reports that painting, sculpture, or drawing could reduce a middle-aged or older adult’s risk of cognitive impairment by 73 percent.
In addition to arts, crafts, and other hobbies, puzzles have been shown to reduce your risk of developing cognitive impairments and prevent memory loss and attention issues. Research on the effects of puzzles and other brain games analyzes the PET-brain scans of adults older than 65 who were active in doing puzzles and brain games since childhood and some who didn’t begin puzzles or brain exercises until adulthood. These scans were compared to brain scans of younger adults who were around 25 years old. They found that the scans of older adults who actively did puzzles throughout childhood were comparable to the scans of the young adults.
If you’re an older adult who has just taken up brain games and puzzles, do not worry. While the effects are magnified in those who have enjoyed these exercises since childhood, doing puzzles and other brain games still stimulates your brain and may be slightly beneficial for your cognitive development.
In addition to brain exercises, physical exercise has been proven to prevent and treat cognitive decline in older adults as well! Physical activity can treat and stabilize cognitive function as you age. Physical exercise also has a number of other benefits that can help you navigate the challenges of growing older. The research surrounding physical exercise and the positive impact it can have on the brain not only show a decreased risk of memory loss, but also an incline in their overall mental function and lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Social activity can have a positive effect on your cognitive function as you age. A study found that senior adults who regularly socialized in groups were 55 percent less likely to suffer impairments in their cognitive abilities than those who don’t.
What To do Next
Now that you understand the effects of aging on our cognitive development -- take action! If you don’t have a hobby, read more about how you can pursue one and the benefits it has other than preventing cognitive impairment. As an older adult, it’s easy to feel isolated and lonely. If you are not part of a social group or if you experience severe loneliness, consider finding a book club, gardening club, or senior center.
Find time to integrate puzzles into your day, whether these be crossword puzzles or brain-teasing riddles, any form of brain exercise can increase your memory and prevent cognitive decline. And lastly, find a form of arts and crafts that you enjoy. Take a painting lesson or try to draw your favorite family photo. Taking these actions will not only benefit your cognitive development and protect your brain from decline, but they are also fun and may help restore fun and purpose to your life.
Thanks to modern medicine and research, we are becoming more aware of how to combat cognitive decline that accompanies age and promotes memory, attention, and other brain functions. By implementing simple brain exercises and practices into your life, you can remain sharp and keep doing the things you love! If you are looking for more ways to support yourself or a loved one’s wellness as you age, check us out at Because Market.