Seniors Get SMARTER as They Get Older – How to Retain Your Smarts and Your Memory

Forty year-old Rachel is quite forgetful. She always forgets at least one item when she goes to the supermarket, forgets names (but typically remembers faces), and can’t always tell you what she had for breakfast that day. Eighty year-old Roberta, on the other hand, never forgets a grocery item, a name, a face, or a trivia fact, and is typically as sharp as a tack. Do people actually get smarter as they get older? And, why do some people’s brains stay sharp as they age, while others (some of whom are younger) do not?

People DO Get Smarter as They Age

As we get older, for some of us like Rachel in our example, our memory may occasionally short out. However, researchers have made some surprising discoveries about how we actually get smarter as we age, as follows, and there are also things you can do in your life to preserve the smarts that you have, as I will explain later.

1. You use both sides of your brain, rather than just one: While young people often use only one side of their brain for a specific task, middle-aged and older adults are more likely to activate both hemispheres at once. By involving both sides, older people use the full spectrum of the brain’s power, allowing them to make more fruitful connections among the parts of a problem or situation.
2. Your brain is still growing: We not only hang on to our neurons as we get older—we grow new ones, too. Throughout a person’s lifetime, the brain is continually reshaping itself in response to what it learns. For instance, in an experiment, Swiss neuroscientist Lutz Jäncke studied people who were learning to play a musical instrument. After they had been practicing for five months, Jäncke noted significant changes in the regions of the brain that control hearing, memory, and hand movements, even in participants who were 65 or older.
3. Your reasoning and problem-solving skills get sharper: According to a study prepared for the Brookings Institute by Sumit Agarwal, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, middle-aged and older adults make smarter money decisions than their younger counterparts. In particular, they are better at financial transactions such as managing their credit card balance and avoiding excess interest rates and fees—with the best performance notched by those in their early 50s.
4. Your people skills are constantly improving: As we get older, our social intelligence keeps expanding. We get better at sizing up people, at understanding how relationships work—and are typically not getting into arguments unless we mean to.
5. You’re always adding to your knowledge and abilities: There are some kinds of information we learn and never forget, such as vocabulary: Studies show that we keep adding new words to our repertoire as we age, giving us more ways to express ourselves. Job-related knowledge also continues to accumulate, meaning we keep getting better and better at what we do.
6. You gain control of your emotions: Older adults (between ages 61 and 81) have more clarity about their feelings, make better use of strategies to regulate their emotions, and have a higher degree of control over their emotional impulses.

Retaining These New Skills and Keeping Your Mind Sharp

Susan Bookheimer, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCLA, is currently researching the factors that predict who is going to stay sharp and why. Her research is part of a new study to answer how some people are able to retain their memory better than others as they age.

Over the next two years, researchers at UCLA will scan the brains of 300 healthy people ranging in age from 35 to over 100, to collect cognitive data and measurements such as blood pressure, hormone levels, and body mass index. Two years later, they’ll re-scan everyone, allowing them to document changes.

This project, launched this past spring by UCLA with funding provided by NIH, is called the Lifespan Human Connectome Project-Aging (HCP-A) “Connectome” refers to the mapping of connections, or wiring, between brain regions. It will be interesting to see what the study finds, and we will certainly keep you up-to-date. In the mean-time, there are some things that we know to be true now, and things you can do to better preserve the mental sharpness that you have.

What You Can Do to Stay Sharp

Since we are getting smarter every day (see examples above), how do we preserve the new skills we are acquiring and stay sharp? Here are some suggestions:

· Simple physical exercise does the brain as much good as it does the body. To keep your brain sharp, physical exercise is the best-proven prescription so far, scientists agree. For instance, when 72-year-olds started a walking program three days a week, sophisticated scans showed their brains’ activity patterns started resembling those of younger people.
· Use it or Lost it: People with higher education, more challenging occupations, and enriched social lives build more cognitive reserve than couch potatoes. But how can we maintain them? Everything from doing crossword puzzles to various computer-based brain-training programs has been touted, but nothing is yet proven to work. Johns Hopkins University has a major government-funded study under way called the “Experience Corps,” where older adults volunteer to tutor school students 15 hours a week, to see if such long-term stimulation maintains the elders’ brains.
· Control high blood pressure. High blood pressure can increase your risk for heart disease and stroke, which are thought to contribute to memory loss and the development of certain types of memory impairment.
· Don’t smoke and don’t drink excessively. Because these are both seen as putting you at increased risk for memory loss or dementia, kick the habit if you smoke and, if you drink, do so only in moderation.
· Eat a healthy diet. People who consume plenty of vegetables and fatty fish and keep away from saturated fats are thought to have a lower risk for cognitive decline.

Promising research shows that you can reduce your risk of dementia through a combination of healthy habits, including eating right, exercising, staying mentally and socially active, and keeping stress to a minimum. By leading a brain-healthy lifestyle, you may be able to prevent the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and slow down, or even reverse, the process of deterioration.

Medicaid Asset Protection

Do you have a loved one who is suffering from dementia? Persons with dementia and their families face special legal and financial needs. At The Farr Law Firm, we are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on those suffering from dementia and their loved ones. We help protect the family’s hard-earned assets while maintaining your loved one’s comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits such as Medicaid and Veterans Aid and Attendance. Please call us as soon as possible to make an appointment for a no-cost initial consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797

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