My friends and I are at the age where we frequently have animated dinner conversations about the movies we want to see, even though we can’t recall any of the movies’ titles or the names of any of the actors starring in them.
Which, I am relieved to say, is not necessarily a sign that all or any of us has dementia. That we know of. Yet.
In fact, two recent studies focus on the positive — that’s right, positive — effects aging can have on the brain, and how individuals can promote their own cognitive well-being, often with the help of health care professionals.
First, let’s refer to an article in April’s Harvard Women’s Health Watch, rosily titled “Why You Should Thank Your Aging Brain.” It outlines four ways an older individual may cognitively outperform his or her younger self:
• Inductive reasoning. Older people are less likely to rush to judgment and more likely to reach the right conclusion based on the information at hand. This is an enormous help in everyday problem-solving, from planning the most efficient way to do errands to managing staff at work.
• Verbal expression. During middle age, many people continue to expand their vocabulary and hone their ability to express themselves.
• Basic math. Splitting the check and figuring the tip when lunching with friends may come easier simply due to years of practice.
• Accentuating the positive. The amygdala, the area of the brain that consolidates emotion and memory, is less responsive to negatively charged situations in older people than in younger ones. This may explain why studies have shown that people older than 60 tend to brood less.
Then there’s the April report from the Institute of Medicine that strikes a more sober, though still hopeful, tone. “The extent and nature of these changes vary widely and are gradual, and aging can have both positive and negative effects on cognition,” says Dan G. Blazer, a professor emeritus in psychiatry at Duke University and chair of the research committee. “Wisdom and knowledge can increase with age, while memory and attention can decline.”
Hey, wisdom and knowledge are good, right? Two out of four ain’t so bad.
The IOM report lists three steps individuals at any stage of aging (that would be all of us) should take to promote cognitive health:
• Be physically active.
• Reduce and manage cardiovascular disease risk factors, including high blood pressure, diabetes and smoking.
• Regularly discuss and review health conditions and medications that might influence cognitive health with a health care professional. A number of medications can have a negative effect — temporary or long-term — on cognitive function when used alone or in combination with other medication.
For good measure, the report adds four other ways to be nice to your brain:
• Be socially and intellectually active, and continually seek opportunities to learn.
• Get adequate sleep and seek professional treatment for sleep disorders, if needed.
• Take steps to avoid a sudden acute decline in cognitive function, known as delirium, associated with medications or hospitalizations.
• Carefully evaluate products advertised to consumers to improve cognitive health, such as medications, nutritional supplements and cognitive training.
So, next time you misplace your cellphone or forget the one ingredient you went to the supermarket specifically to get for tonight’s supper, relax. Go to that movie you’ve been wanting to see. The one with the actress we both love. You know who I mean.