Modern neuroscience is discovering new ways to keep our bodies and minds fit into old age. Here we’ll take a look at why cognitive decline is anything but inevitable, and how mental wellness can be maintained in surprisingly easy ways.
As we grow older, the natural process of aging typically brings cognitive decline as well as physiological changes. The most well-known aspect of mental decline is memory loss. However, high-level cognitive functions are also commonly affected, including aspects of executive functions, working memory, and attention. Even small changes in these areas of mental performance can affect our ability to work, and overall quality of life.
Some aspects of mental performance start to change earlier than others, for example some evidence suggests that somewhat surprisingly, mental processing speed starts to decline from as young as 24 years old. Healthy aging refers to these types of changes when there are no medical conditions involved. However, as most people are aware, growing into old age also increases the risks of developing degenerative brain diseases, some of the most common of which, are Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease. These can seriously affect all areas of quality of life.
The brain’s ability to be plastic provides some powerful defenses to the effects of aging. Remarkably research has found that older people who retain high-levels of neuroplasticity can naturally resist the effects of cognitive decline, even when they have serious, late stage cognitive diseases. This is an important concept known as ‘cognitive reserve’. In principle this means that when certain brain regions become damaged, other regions adapt to take on higher loads, effectively compensating for functional losses.
In fact, modern neuroscience theories suggest that neuroplasticity could be the central protective mechanism against most forms of cognitive decline or diseases. In addition, neurogenesis – the growth of new brain cells, has been found to occur into old age. This means that our brains still have the potential to recover from age-related deficits.
It is now well established that neuroplasticity can be stimulated and increased by neural activity. Just as we can workout our bodies to keep them in tip-top shape, our brains are all also responsive to mental forms of exercise. This has led to the phrase ‘use it, or lose’, because a lack of mental activity has the reverse effect.
Everyday activities that involve some level of mental challenge are effective ways to encourage our brains to stay both sharp and healthy. This includes remaining socially active, learning new skills or hobbies, and regularly taking on new or novel experiences. In combination with healthy lifestyles choices like a balanced nutritional diet and exercising, while avoiding sins such as smoking or over-consumption of alcohol, this can result in staying mentally fit, well into old age.
With developments in neuroscience in recent years, there are also direct strategies for maintaining cognitive health. Preeminent neuroscientist Professor Faubert, conducted research at the Faubert Lab, which discovered that healthy older people retain a high-level of responsiveness to cognitive training with NeuroTracker. Although the study found that older people have much lower cognitive functioning when compared to young adults, he found that with just 3 hours of distributed training on this 3D multiple object tracking task, they could actually match their younger counterparts.
He also realized that the actual capacity for their brains to adapt and learn at a fundamental level, was equal to healthy young adults. Improvement on NeuroTracker has been established in many research studies to transfer to significantly improved high-level cognitive functions. As such, this research demonstrates that training strategies like NeuroTracker, can offer very effective ways to retain mental agility into the golden years.
Expanding on this, Professor Faubert conducted another study to investigate if the effects of NeuroTracker training could transfer specifically to a skill called Biological Motion Perception (BMP). In layman’s terms, BMP refers to our capacity to read multiple human movement cues at the same time, to accurately interpret and predict the actions of other people. For example, this is needed to read body language. The results showed a dramatic increase in ability to read body movement at close distances (when it is most difficult), a skill which greatly declines with aging.
More research is on-going to see if such cognitive training programs can improve aspects of quality life and day-to-day skills, such as safe driving, or preventing serious risks such as falling. Overall though, the role of cognitive training shows great promise for boosting neuroplasticity to avoid cognitive regression, and in ways that are safe, affordable, and practical.
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