Understanding Normal Brain Aging for Seniors

Apr 4th, 2010 | By Sharon Shaw Elrod MSW EdD | Category: Lifestyle, Health & Fitness

An understanding of normal brain functioning, including the aging process, may be helpful to many of us senior citizens as we experience life changes.  The Johns Hopkins organization recently published a paper that describes normal brain aging.  The following is a summary:

20s:  long-term memories are formed and complex reasoning is at its prime; creativity blossoms; slight physical changes take place in the brain, including neuron (nerve cells that process and transmit information) shrinkage;

30s:  neurons continue to shrink and brain loses volume (small amount) usually not apparent to anyone; 

40s:  some slowing of mental processing, particularly in short-term memory; brain volume continues to diminish (neurons shrinking) and in some, the shrinkage may accelerate;

50s:  Johns Hopkins paper calls this a threshold:  loss of brain volume accelerates and becomes more noticeable; changes occur in memory and other areas of cognition, including processing speed slows (takes longer to recall names, locations, words); learning something new takes longer; multi-tasking is more difficult; memory for details diminishes;

60s:  loss of brain volume continues; parts of the brain that are critical to memory and other cognitive abilities are most vulnerable; cognitive changes that occurred 10 years previously become more noticeable; what happened in the 50s continues and is more obvious; brain is less able to form new memories and recall stored memories; brain has to work harder to retrieve names, dates and words;

70s and beyond: people 70 and older vary a lot in their cognitive abilities; many maintain good cognition and add wisdom;  for others, both environmental and genetic influences take a toll on memory and cognition; signs of dementia begin to show in this decade. 

UCLA researcher, Gary Small, found the older brain is able to do more complex reasoning, has more empathy and if one remains physically fit, brain cells can actually regenerate—new information that negates the notion that brain cells die off and cannot grow again.

Clearly, in the absence of a brain-destroying disease such as Alzheimer’s, the prognosis for seniors looks much brighter for good brain functioning if good health-care practices are maintained.



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