How many of us have been wary of getting into a conversation with a senior citizen because it may take too long and we are in a hurry? When an older person can't remember a name or a specific event, how often does someone think that that person has Alzheimer's or dementia? Why is it that seniors do not get the benefit of the doubt that their brains may be working, just a little bit more slowly? It seems that our society needs to take into account that seniors? brains do experience a certain amount of decline, but that doesn?t mean that the person is losing their mind.
It is a well known fact that as people age they will have trouble remembering to some degree, but how much of that is normal aging and how much is Alzheimer's Disease. It is common to hear about sons and daughters getting frustrated with their older parents when they forget an appointment or a name. The children will have concerns that their parents are getting Alzheimer's. How much of that forgetfulness can be attributed simply to aging? The distinction between normal aging and dementia has always been fuzzy, until just recently.
Dementia, especially Alzheimer's Disease, has been the main focus of gerontological neuroscience for the purposes of diagnosis and treatment. Just recently, a new focus of neuroscience has been to look at what is normal aging for the brain. Through a battery of studies and tests, there seems to be some understanding of what happens to the brain during normal aging.
Long-term memory is one of the most well known types of age related cognitive decline. The left inferior prefrontal region shows less activity in seniors than in young adults during memory tasks. The activity level in this brain region could be increased with cues and "encoding strategies" (Park & Reuter-Lorenz, 2010). Another one of the main deficits that is associated with aging is a decrease in cognitive speed in memory retrieval. This has been shown to be associated with decreased axonal volume or white matter volume (Park & Reuter-Lorenz, 2010). The implications of the research on cognitive speed could be as simple as wait and give them time. There could one day even be a pharmacological treatment that combats the decrease in white matter volume.
There seems to be a simple way to combat some of the decline in the aging brain. Park and Reuter-Lorenz were able to find that "investments made earlier in life, in the form of intellectual, social, and physical enrichment, may increase neural reserve and potential for effective scaffolding as people meet increasing challenges later in life" (2010). With that said, living a rich and thought provoking life in all the above mention areas of life may lead to brain structure that can withstand the negative effects of aging on the brain.
These advances in research could be monumental for every aspect of a senior's life, such as visits to the doctor, daily interactions, and even long term care. Medical care can be simplified by the simple understanding that cognitive deterioration is automatically Alzheimer's Disease or another form of dementia. If a person exhibits normal cognitive aging, a doctor trained in neuroscience would know not to automatically medicate that individual. The doctor would know to educate the senior and his or her family members about ways to better function everyday, like using the cues and encoding strategies. Seniors with normal aging entering long term care would benefit because the care staff would have a better understanding of how to care for them after becoming educated themselves or consulting with the doctor.
The huge advances in gerontology and neuroscience have allowed us as a society to gain a better understanding of what is going on in our grandparents' brains. It has also allowed us to extend the research and the possible benefits to areas outside gerontology to help the entire lifespan.
From the paper by Park, D.C., Reuter-Lorenz, P.A. "Human Neuroscience and the Aging Mind: A New Look at an Old Problem" in Journal of Gerontology.