Staying Sharp: Researchers Discuss the Aging Brain


Robert Wilson speaking as Arthur Kramer looks
on at the joint APS and National Institute
of Aging press conference.

Do you remember where you put your keys? How about what you had for breakfast or where you parked your car? If you have a hard time remembering these things now, what about in 10 years?

There is widespread concern that significant cognitive decline is inevitable with old age.  While it is true that there are currently an estimated five million cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in the United States, “dementia is really just the tip of the iceberg,” according to Robert Wilson, professor in the Department of Neurological Sciences and Psychology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and the Senior Neuropsychologist of the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center.  Mild cognitive impairment is two to three times more common than dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and can also be responsible for a rapid decline of cognitive function, said Wilson. Wilson and his associate Arthur Kramer presented research on preventing cognitive decline in a press conference sponsored jointly by APS and the National Institute of Aging on “The Science of Keeping Sharp: Healthy Functioning in the Aging Brain.” Their talks were based on findings presented in “Enrichment Effects on Adult Cognitive Development,” a report published in the APS journal  Psychological Science in the Public Interest, written by Wilson, Kramer, and their colleagues Christopher Hertzog and Ulman Lindenberger. Wilson reported on four factors that could delay cognitive decline: mental engagement, social involvement, certain personality traits, and physical fitness.

“People who report reading more; going to concerts, plays, and libraries; writing letters; and so on, are at decreased risk of experiencing cognitive decline,” explained Wilson.

Certain personality traits can also affect the risk of decline or dementia. Conscientiousness, the trait that helps people stay goal-oriented, can combat decline, whereas neuroticism, a predisposition to depression and anxiety, can increase impairment. Kramer, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and director of the Beckman Institute Biomedical Imaging Center, reported that physical exercise can also help delay impairment caused by aging. New animal studies show that there is a birth of new neurons and an increase of neurotransmitters while exercising, leading scientists to conclude that more happens in the brain during exercise than just increased oxygen levels and blood flow.

Among specific tasks claiming to improve cognitive functioning, those that use executive control or “planning, scheduling, dealing with ambiguity, multitasking, and working memory” seem to translate well from the lab to real-world improvements across domains. But, the jury is still out on the myriad computer-based training programs claiming to improve memory. Kramer and Wilson agree that more research is needed to determine which programs work and which are preying on the wallets of a worried aging population.

Though these methods can promote healthy functioning in relatively normal seniors, there is little or no positive effect on older adults who have passed a certain point of cognitive decline. In light of this, the authors called for an extensive research agenda, including studies with middle-aged participants, to find the best combination of training to keep people active and extend mental prowess to a later age.

Wilson, Kramer, and their colleagues also suggest a public policy campaign to advocate “steps to maintain healthy minds and brains.” They propose that insurance companies could reward people’s investment in their own mental health, similar to insurance breaks given to drivers without accidents.

Though aging is inevitable, it appears that losing our mental facilities along the way need not always be a part of the process. So remember to pick up a book, a friend, and your walking shoes to stay sharp.

Observer Vol.22, No.7 September, 2009

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