This might sound scary but there’s no escaping the fact that cognitive ageing is real. If you haven’t heard the term before but would like to know more, this post will tell you some of the many ways that our brain and consequently, our memory, thinking abilities and other mental processes change with age.
What is Cognitive Ageing?
It has been scientifically proven that continuous change occurs in the functioning of the human brain with an increase in age. The brain is responsible for a host of processes, including memory, attention, problem-solving, and learning abilities. As we age, these functions may experience change. This is cognitive ageing.
As with other body muscles and organs, the brain too changes as our age increases. Physically, as we hit our 30s-40s, our brains begin to shrink and decrease in overall volume.
The biggest shrinkages happen in the prefrontal cortex, cerebellum, and hippocampus. These are the areas of our brain responsible for our individual behaviour and personality traits, motor skills, learning, and memory.
With the shrinking of these areas comes the inevitable decrease in the ability to focus, solve complex problems, and learn new skills, among other issues.
How does Cognitive Ageing affect our memory?
As mentioned earlier, the brain experiences a shrinkage in volume with age, leading to different implications, especially on our memory. To understand these changes, it is important to note that the term “memory” can be divided or used to denote multiple aspects:
Events that may have taken place in your life or the knowledge of acquired facts and information are both forms of declarative memory. This type of memory declines with age.
Procedural memory refers to the ability to remember how to do things. For example, this may include knowing how to swim or ride a bike, or even tie one’s shoelaces. This type of memory usually remains intact even as we age.
The ability to remember a piece of information is part of your working memory. An example of this type of memory would include say, remembering someone’s phone number or where your car is parked. Working memory has usually more to deal with new and often temporary information rather than stored knowledge. This type of memory too may decline with age.
How does Cognitive Ageing affect our attention span?
The area of the brain that helps us pay attention is called the prefrontal cortex. This is also the section of our brain that has shown to display the maximum amount of age-related atrophy or shrinkage. With this decrease in volume, here’s how the different types of attention are affected:
Selective attention is the ability to focus on one particular event or person irrespective of one’s surroundings. A great example of this is being able to follow a conversation with someone in a noisy environment. Unfortunately, our ability to hold our selective attention greatly declines with age.
This refers to a person’s ability to multitask. An example of divided attention is being able to cook while talking on the phone. This type of attention too usually decreases with an increase in your age.
The ability to focus and concentrate on a subject or activity for a longer period of time is referred to as sustained attention. Reading the newspaper is an example of sustained attention. Studies have shown that this type of attention generally does not decline with age.
How is Cognitive Ageing different from serious cognitive diseases?
Diseases like Alzheimer’s are predominantly characterised by extensive loss of neurons. The decline in cognitive ability is also drastic and worsens with time. On the other hand, cognitive ageing is gradual without any stark decrease in neuron numbers.
Therefore, it is crucial to understand that cognitive ageing is a normal process that is very different from more serious diseases like Alzheimer’s or other neurodegenerative diseases.
Cognitive ageing cannot be prevented but adopting a healthier lifestyle can definitely compensate for the decline in cognitive abilities. Getting enough sleep, following an adequate exercise routine, and avoiding excessive alcohol are some of the ways you can keep your brain healthier for longer.
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