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Senior Lifestyles

Myths about aging brains

As older adults constitute an increasingly larger portion of the American population, health research has begun to explore the psychological changes associated with aging in greater depth. Studying mental functioning and emotional well-being, in addition to afflictions such as Alzheimer's and dementia, can present a more complete understanding of how brains change as they age.

Stanford researcher Laura L. Carstensen, Ph.D., directs the Stanford Center on Longevity. In part one of a two-part series, she responds to questions on some of the key areas of research regarding the psychological aspects of aging.

Q: What are the most important aspects of the aging mind that researchers are studying today?

A: Most of the ongoing research on the aging mind concerns the nature and the degree of cognitive decline with age. For many years the research simply documented age-related decline, but today there is increasing interest in preventing the decline or understanding ways in which the effects can be minimized.

Research on emotion and aging has exploded in the last decade. In this domain, the news is good. Emotional regulation and experience appear to improve with age. Finally, there is growing interest in what some people might call wisdom. Wisdom reflects a combination of knowledge about practical matters of life and emotional stability.

Q: Can you walk us through the basics of these areas and address how age impacts them?

A: Beginning with cognition and memory, I think it's important to point out that there is no question that some key aspects of mental functioning decline with age. Older adults are slower and less effective at performing a variety of mental tasks, from recalling information to concentrating. There is growing interest in research on interventions that would improve cognitive functioning.

Q: Like the brain games we hear about?

A: Yes, there are ongoing studies of activities like computer-based games and crossword puzzles or ingesting supplements like ginkgo biloba.

Scientists are developing research programs that test the claims of these actions, along with other prospects. But honestly, for now, the evidence is mixed. Playing games clearly improves your performance on the games, but in most cases it's unlikely that performance will carry over to real-world tasks.

Obviously, the public is intrigued by the idea of taking a supplement or playing simple games to improve cognition, but while some findings are intriguing, there isn't compelling evidence that any of them have a significant effect.

Q: Has there been any progress?

A: I would say yes. Scientists are optimistic that some interventions can work. At Stanford, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Jerome Yesavage, M.D., and his team are studying ways to improve memory by developing concentration, visual imagery ability and the ability to use associative devices (mnemonics) in older adults with and without Alzheimer's.

In a more biologically based approach, Stanford neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D., is developing gene therapy strategies that might preserve brain neurons, among other interventions.

The Stanford Center works with a group based at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. Led by co-director Ulman Lindenberger, Ph.D., their research team is doing exciting work that suggests that intensive training over several weeks may effectively improve functioning.

My research team has shown that when it comes to processing emotional information, decline is less evident. Particularly when tasks involve positive information, older adults perform quite well. Whereas younger adults tend to remember negative information, older people relatively remember more positive information.

We are trying to develop models for assisting people to capitalize on such strengths. Some of it involves studying the results of framing information in a way that is easier for older people to remember.

For example, if a physician wants to ensure that an older patient remembers to take a medication on the proper schedule, it makes sense to stress the positive benefits of taking the medication, rather than the negative consequences of forgetting it. Phrasing the message "If you take this on time, you will have more energy and be able to spend more playing with your grandchildren" rather than "If you don't follow the proper dosage and schedule, you will increase your risk of feeling weak and dizzy" may prove more effective in terms of achieving the desired outcome.

The Stanford Center on Longevity provided content for this article. For more information, visit longevity.stanford.edu.

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