Some changes in the ability to think and remember things are considered a normal part of the aging process. We develop many cognitive abilities that appear to peak around the age of 30 and, on average, very subtly start to decline with age. These age-related declines most commonly include overall slowness in thinking, difficulties sustatining attention, multi-tasking, retaining information and word finding. Research indicates that age-related changes in the brain’s actual structure are a common aspect of aging that contributes to some of the thinking changes. However, not all types of thinking abilities decline with age, in fact, vocabulary, reading and verbal reasoning remain unchanged or even improve as we age.
While some mild changes in cognition are considered a normal part of the aging process, dementia is not. Normal age-related declines are subtle and mostly affect the speed of thinking and our ability to remain focused. In abnormal aging, declines are more severe and may include other cognitive abilities, such as rapid forgetting, difficulties navigating, solving common problems, expressing oneself in conversation or behaving outside of accepted social rules. Abnormal aging can also include aspects of motor function, such as excessive tripping, falls or tremors. Often, it is difficult to determine exactly when a person should be concerned with cognitive changes they may be experiencing. Symptoms vary from person to person, what is normal for one person may not be normal for another. This contributes to the challenges clinicians face when determining whether what someone is experiencing is a significant decline for them or within normal expectations of aging.
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and dementia are broad terms that indicate that there is a decline in cognition greater than one would expect for that person’s age, education or development. MCI means that the cognitive declines do not affect the person’s ability to carry out everyday tasks (e.g., shopping, cooking, driving), while dementia indicates those cognitive difficulties are impacting the person’s ability to complete everyday tasks.
Symptoms to Watch For
- Getting lost in familiar places
- Repetitive questioning
- Odd or inappropriate behaviors
- Forgetfulness of recent events
- Repeated falls or loss of balance
- Personality changes
- Decline in planning and organization
- Changes in diet/eating habits
- Changes in hygiene
- Increased apathy
Changes in language abilities, including comprehension
The progression of cognitive deficits observed in conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease may be accelerated in the few years
immediately preceding the diagnosis. Accelerated cognitive decline may not occur until events, like a life stressor or other illness, reach a point where the brain can no longer compensate for damage. Thus, it is important to get regular medical check-ups to monitor the extent and severity to which someone may be experiencing cognitive decline. Independent living should not be compromised during normal aging, however, that is not the case with Alzheimer’s disease.
Risk Factors for Cognitive Decline
There are several risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and other causes of dementia. Research suggests approximately 50% of Alzheimer’s disease cases may be related to these modifiable risk factors:
- Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Midlife obesity
- Little or no mental activity
Little or no physical exercise
Maintaining Your Brain
Research also suggests that the combination of good nutrition, physical activity and mental and social interaction may provide benefits in promoting brain health.
- Stay away from smoking.
- Exercise at a moderately high level of physical activity. Exercise facilitates oxygen and growth factors in the brain and helps modulate the brain’s immune responses.
- Get routine medical care. Illnesses in your body affect your brain’s ability to optimally function.
- Maintain excellent cardiovascular health (e.g., blood pressure, cholesterol levels). What’s good for the heart is good for the brain!
- Build social support networksto reduce stress, challenge your brain and share the aging process with other people who are experiencing the same changes and joys of entering into the latter years of life.
- Keep doing the activities that challenge you and you enjoy for as long as possible. Trying new activities may be a great way to challenge your brain to make new brain connections. Gardening, playing cards, walking, reading or other activities that are complicated enough to involve your mind but don’t add stress to your life are great examples.
Maintain a healthy diet. Plan your meals around your vegetables and then fill in with other foods. Otherwise, as a general plan, eat a variety of foods as close to their
- natural state as possible, such as choosing raw or steamed vegetables over fried ones.
While it is important to remain vigilant about maintaining good health, it is equally important to acknowledge that there are individual differences during the aging process. You should discuss any concerns you may have with a healthcare professional. If you have the tiniest concern, it is worth telling your physician so they are aware and can address the problem, if it requires action.