Stay sharp! It's the mantra of many as they age.
Collectively called cognitive abilities – clear thinking, accurate memories, sound problem-solving, and effective decision making – are the subject of a new Institute of Medicine (IOM) report.Cognitive Aging: Progress in Understanding and Opportunities for Action, aims to increase the public's knowledge of cognitive aging as well as to clarify its misconceptions.
Cognitive aging is a lifelong process that happens to all mammals, including humans," said Marilyn Albert, PhD, Johns Hopkins University, Professor of Neurology and Director of the Division of Cognitive Neuroscience.
Even so, cognitive aging is a source of anxiety for people as they grow older. A 2012, AARP survey revealed that staying "mentally sharp" as they age was a top concern of 87 percent of survey respondents. Much of that worry stems from fear that declines in memory or decision-making abilities may be early signs of Alzheimer's disease.
"The IOM report makes quite a point of the fact that across a life span there can be changes in the function and capacity of the nerve cells," said Dr. Albert, one of the experts who helped write the IOM report. "However, cognitive aging does not lead to the death of nerve cells. With Alzheimer's disease, one of the prominent characteristics is the death of nerve cells."
Like all aging processes, cognitive aging varies from person to person. It's influenced by an individual's education level, chronic health conditions, environmental factors and early development – even in utero.
How can cognitive aging impact our lives? Day-to-day activities, such as driving, can be effected by cognitive aging. Some people have difficulty making complex financial and healthcare decisions or understanding complicated instructions given by healthcare professionals. It can become more difficult for older people to learn new things or take on highly technical or timed tasks.
Take Control of Cognitive Aging
The good news is that there are ways to address such cognitive changes. Chief among the IOM report's recommendations is that people remain physically active. Aerobic exercise, in particular, is good for cognitive health at any age. It can even benefit people who haven't previously been active. Aerobic exercise appears to have a direct effect on brain function but also benefits the blood vessels in the brain.
"What's good for the heart is good for the brain," said Dr. Albert. "I tell people if they want to maintain the brain's vessels, they need to take care of their vascular health."
Some of the IOM report recommendations to help minimize cognitive aging include:
• Managing chronic health conditions (e.g., diabetes, hypertension)
• Quitting smoking
• Maintaining a healthy weight
• Remaining socially engaged and involved with family and friends
"People also should be aware of the medications they're taking and speak to their physician about whether or not their medications can affect brain function," Dr. Albert said. "At least once a year, everyone should have a discussion about their cognitive abilities with their doctor. If there are changes that are out of the ordinary, it is important to talk to your physician about them."
Dr. Albert emphasizes that aging also can have positive effects on cognitive abilities.
"People have more wisdom and greater ability to deal with life's challenges," she said.