Preparing for a Nation of Older Brains

Seniors today are more motivated than ever to make brain-healthy lifestyle choices. But even normal age-related cognitive changes will have an impact as the baby boomers age, say experts.

Diverse group of seniors bowling

Most Americans are aware of the challenges Alzheimer's disease creates for seniors, families and society. It's understandable that many seniors and even younger people tend to obsess about their memory and thinking, scrutinizing every little lapse with concern! Fortunately, this has motivated many of us to focus on taking care of our brains. For example, more than half of those who responded to a May 2015 Caring Right at Home poll reported making lifestyle choices that support cognitive health.

Neurologists tell us that as we grow older, certain cognitive changes are quite normal. While each of us ages in our unique way, typical changes include forgetting names or words, occasionally forgetting why we came into a room or where we left the car keys, increased difficulty with multitasking, and having to work a little harder to learn new things or make a decision. Most people are relieved to know that these lapses and slowdowns are considered normal.

Yet these age-related changes in our mental function aren't without impact. Recently, the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, released a report on cognitive aging and the lives and well-being of older adults. According to the report, "Aging can affect cognitive abilities needed to perform daily tasks, such as driving, following recipes, adhering to medication schedules, and paying bills." The report also emphasized that reduced decision-making ability is one factor in financial fraud that targets seniors, who are defrauded of close to $3 billion each year.

Dan G. Blazer, professor emeritus from Duke University Medical Center, said, "Aging can have both positive and negative effects on cognition. Wisdom and knowledge can increase with age, while memory and attention decline." Said Blazer, who served as committee chair of the study, "Changes in mental functions and capabilities are a part of aging and occur with everyone. The extent and nature of these changes vary widely and are gradual."

What Can Individuals Do to Protect Cognitive Health?

The committee offered a series of recommendations that serve as an overview of today's state-of-the-art understanding of brain health. Their top recommendations are to be physically active; to manage health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure; to quit smoking; and to have medications reviewed regularly to avoid side effects that harm memory and thinking.

Other potentially helpful lifestyle and healthcare choices: Be socially and intellectually engaged; get enough sleep and seek treatment for sleep disorders; and avoid situations that could lead to delirium (a temporary cognitive state resulting from hospitalization, illness or medication).

The committee urged caution in regard to certain products that make claims to protect brain health. They say that studies of the benefits of "brain training" computer programs are inconclusive. And what about "brain health" vitamins and supplements? The report said, "Despite widespread publicity about the benefits of vitamins and supplements for brain health and the large expenditures made on these products … the evidence for supplements enhancing cognition or preventing decline is limited, and the medical literature does not convincingly support any vitamin supplement intervention to prevent cognitive decline."

A Call to Action

Beyond the individual level, society as a whole can play a part. The report calls upon communities, state and federal agencies, financial institutions, nonprofit organizations, healthcare professionals and businesses to take a greater role in supporting the cognitive health and well-being of older Americans.

Read more about the report, Cognitive Aging: Progress in Understanding and Opportunities for Action, on the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies website.

Next month: Is it true that even as certain mental abilities decline as we grow older, most of us will gain in wisdom? And what exactly does "wisdom" mean? Read "Older and Wiser?" in the August 2015 issue of the Caring Right at Home online newsletter to learn more.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.