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Researchers analyze the 'myth of cognitive decline' with regards to aging

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Julie Moorer loves to talk about Alzheimer’s. Moorer is a nurse who specializes in Alzheimer’s research studies. One of the questions she frequently gets when she is speaking is “is it normal aging or is it dementia.”

So she’s come up with a way to talk about our memories. Memory is like a file cabinet she says. When we are young the file cabinet is fairly empty so when you need to pull something out of the file cabinet, it’s reasonably easy to find it. But as we age that file cabinet gets full. When we go looking for something it’s wedged amongst a whole bunch of other pieces of information and it takes a while to get your hands on it. That’s normal aging. It turns out that now there’s research to back Moorer up.

Over the years, research studies have found that our problem-solving abilities dim with age. Thoughts seem to slow down. Those cognitive slowdowns were thought to be evidence of normal aging but a group of researchers set up an experiment to show that that thinking was faulty. One of the questions they asked is “if practice makes perfect, why does our performance on cognitive tests decline over time.”

What they decided was that the usual tests did not take into account the accumulated knowledge a person develops over time. They compared it to remembering birthdays. We hear about birthdays all the time. Some birthdays we hear about annually and some we only hear once. Initially we may only need to remember a few birthdays but as we age we accumulate knowledge of other birthdays our mean exposure to a specific birthdate declines and the task of remembering it becomes more complex. One way to look at this is to recognize that someone who can recall the exact birthdates for six birthdays with a high degree of accuracy is not necessarily better at remembering than someone who can recall 600 birthdays with a lesser degree of accuracy. In fact, the same thing they argued occurs with computers so they enabled computers to learn information at the level humans learn information. As the computer’s memory becomes full, the processing time to access that memory slows as well.

In addition, learning is sensitive to our environment. The researchers found that, “Older adults’ performance reflects increased knowledge, not cognitive decline.” Furthermore, they add that some environmental change such as retirement can reduce the variety of contexts people encounter in their lives. The result is retirement is likely to make memories harder to contextualize at exactly the point in an older adult’s life in which the organization of memories is likely to demand it the most.

Their final bit of wisdom was this. Humans do not learn on just one level. Learning is a complex process that is influenced by environmental and social factors. The idea that cognitive decline occurs as we age can exert a strong, negative influence on older adults. Given the millions of older adults in this world, the impact could be debilitating. We need better models for learning and processing information and an increased understanding about how people can manage their memory more effectively in the future in order to prevent what could be a self-fulfilling prophesy of an increased societal burden creating by the aging but felt by all levels of society.

I encourage you to read the study.  There’s a lot of really fascinating things that they looked at that I didn’t cover here.  Here’s the link to the study.

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