Do Mental Abilities Necessarily Deteriorate With Age?

Upgrade Your BrainOne long held assumption regarding aging is that our mental faculties are in a steady state of decline beginning somewhere in the latter part of mid-life, but is that actually true?

At the outset, I will admit that it is undeniable that age brings with it some easily observed decline in both mental and physical capacities. You don’t see any 90 year olds winning the 100 yard dash at the Olympics or becoming the “Top Gun” fighter pilot, but let’s step back from the commonly accepted assumptions about age related mental decline and take a deeper look into the question.

The word “necessarily” in the title of this article is thoughtfully included. None of us question the fact that mental abilities are observed to decline with age. We have all noticed the loss of mental capacities in those older than ourselves, and perhaps in our own capabilities as well.

I’m reminded of a comment made by one of the Three Stooges:

I’m trying to think, but nuttin’s hapnin!”

So, the question is not whether mental functioning has been observed to decline in proportion to our number of years on the planet but rather, is that a “necessary” consequence of longevity or merely the most commonly observed phenomenon?

What’s Age Got to Do With It?

What is interesting to me is that age-related mental decline has, until recently, been afforded nearly universal and unchallenged acceptance by both scientists and laypersons. This is what scientists are now calling “age stereotypes.”

That acceptance is not surprising, given the fact that anyone who is paying attention can observe real world examples of age-related mental decline occurring everywhere around them.

This bias toward the assumption that age brings both physical and mental decline is sometimes referred to as “ageism,” the discriminatory notion that old people are sickly, decrepit and generally less valuable members of society.

This kind of thinking is instilled in us by our youth-oriented culture from an early age. According to Dana Kotter-Gruehn, a visiting assistant professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University:

Even young kids have negative associations; they tell you that older adults are sick, slow, forgetful, no good.”

For those of us who are already seniors, I dare say most of us have experienced first hand instances of mental deterioration which we automatically attribute to our advancing age. We further ingrain the belief by the repeated use of such phrases as “having a senior moment” to explain our mental lapses.

Perhaps we should not be so quick to judge ourselves and to accept the “gospel of age-related mental decline,” especially in view of this recent study.

Age Discrimination & Stereotypes

According to a study reported in the November, 2012 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, seniors who hold positive age stereotypes (i. e. beliefs that age brings self-realization, satisfaction and wisdom) are 44% more likely to fully recover from a disability than seniors with negative age stereotypes (i. e. beliefs that seniors are sick, worthless, etc.).

44% is significant! We, as UpGrading Seniors, should stand up and take note of this research. It’s definitely time for a serious attitude check.

There’s more. Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University has done extensive research in this area. Her research has resulted in a number of findings of particular interest to UpGrading Seniors, but of special note is one study entitled Longevity Increased by Positive Self-Perceptions of Aging in which seniors with positive self-perceptions of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer than seniors with negative self-perceptions of aging.

That’s no small thing (especially at our age) and certainly warrants us UpGrading Seniors taking affirmative steps to upgrade our internal dialogues and self-perceptions about aging. For one, I won’t be using that “senior moment” excuse any more!

How much of what we “know” about the relationship between age and declining mental function is supported by good scientific research and how much of it is strictly observational and anecdotal, which is to say that we and others have observed numerous instances of mental decline occurring in older people?

Are There Any Outliers?

It comes back to the threshold question: is mental decline a necessary consequence of aging, or is it simply something that occurs in a sufficiently high percentage of the aging population as to cause it to be a near universally accepted belief (as distinguished from a fact)?

One question that I have always found useful when examining a hypothesis is what I would call the “Outlier Question” (credit to Malcolm Gladwell for the “Outliers” concept). In the context of mental decline among seniors, it would go something like this:

Are there seniors who have not experienced age-related mental decline?

Let’s see:

  • Peter Drucker, world renowned management consultant, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at age 93 and continued writing and consulting until his death at age 95.
  • Picasso produced 347 engravings when he was 87.
  • Robert Frost was 88 when his last volume of poems was published.
  • Grandma Moses received her last commission as an artist when she was 99.
  • Michelangelo created the architectural plans for the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli at age 88.
  • Arthur Rubinstein performed one of his greatest recitals at Carnegie Hall at age 89.
  • Last but not least, 88 year old Mayor “Hurricane” McCallion (just watch the video.  What can I say?)

The list of outliers is much longer, but I’ll stop there. The existence of these outliers poses a direct challenge to the accepted dogma that our mental abilities necessarily decline with age. The fact that there are examples of human beings who have lived long lives without experiencing significant impairment of their mental capacities standing alone goes a long way toward proving that mental impairment is not a necessary result of aging.

Things We All Know (But Are Wrong!)

According to Gene D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., the director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University, where he also holds the positions of Professor of Health Care Sciences and Professor of Psychiatry,

“You may have learned the following ‘facts’ about the brain:

  • The brain cannot grow new brain cells.
  • Older adults cannot learn as well as young people.
  • Connections between neurons are relatively fixed throughout life.
  • Intelligence is a matter of how many neurons you have and how fast those neurons work.”

The problem is, according to Dr. Cohen, all these “facts” are wrong!

Dr. Cohen goes on to report that research in the past two decades has established four key attributes of the human brain, all of which are very good news for UpGrading Seniors:

  • The brain is continually resculpting itself in response to experience and learning.
  • New brain cells do form throughout life.
  • The brain’s emotional circuitry matures and becomes more balanced with age.
  • The brain’s two hemispheres are more equally used by older adults.

So, even though we’ve gone our entire lives until recently believing the “known scientific fact” that by the age of 2 or 3 we have all the brain cells we’re ever going to have and that as we lose those brain cells over the course of a lifetime mental deterioration is an inevitable and unavoidable consequence, now we find that “it just ain’t so!

Neurogenesis To The Rescue

Great news for us. Rather embarrassing for scientists who have preached the “gospel of age-related mental decline” for so many years and are now having to execute a smart about face in the light of this thing called “neurogenesis,” your brain’s ability to grow new brain cells.

This is one of the most exciting discoveries in neuroscience ever, especially for us seniors. We no longer have to live under the delusion that our brains must of necessity deteriorate as we age because we can’t generate new brain cells as older ones die off.

Consider this excerpt from Mark S. Walton’s book, Boundless Potential, commenting on the findings by scientists that our brains are, indeed, capable of generating new cells at any age:

while the average mature brain generally processes information more slowly and less accurately than a younger model and is more vulnerable to disease, it continues to generate new neurons (brain cells) from “cradle to grave,” through a process called neurogenesis.

And there’s more: the most significant factor influencing this process, as well as our overall mental performance, is how — and whether — we use the brain we have.

Are you listening, UpGraders? The most significant factor affecting our mental performance is how we go about using our brains. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt and assuming that you are, in fact, actually using your brain 😉 . Watching reality shows on TV doesn’t count.

Imagination grows by exercise, and contrary to common belief, is more powerful in the mature than in the young.
— W. Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965)

Summary & Kick In The Pants

So, where do we go from here? Here are a few quick tips that we can put in play immediately to further upgrade our mental processes:

  • Get rid of our own personal negative self-perceptions about age.
  • No more negative, “senior moment,” self-talk.
  • Get vigorous physical exercise regularly (It’s not only good for your body, it’s good for your brain too. Oh wait, your brain is a part of your body.)
  • Engage in challenging mental activities such as learning a language, playing a musical instrument, working puzzles, etc. (Muscles need to be exercised, but science is now proving that your brain needs a workout too.)

When all the latest research is considered, I think a fair summary would be to conclude that age does bring with it the loss of certain physical and mental abilities but the decline is not nearly as inevitable or severe as we once believed.

Our brains do have the ability to generate new neurons and we, in fact, have considerable control over the extent to which we experience age related decline, both mentally and physically.

Further, there is a thing psychiatrists and psychologists refer to as “developmental intelligence,” which actually improves with and is to some degree dependent upon age. It requires a maturation process which is unavailable to younger people.

Combining the emerging science which demonstrates that our brains can continue to create new cells if we affirmatively choose the right behaviors, and the concept of developmental intelligence which improves with age, the future is bright for those UpGrading Seniors who get off the couch, turn off the TV and take the steps necessary to keep their brains in optimal condition.

So what are you hanging around here for, UpGraders? Get busy with your neurogenesis. Go grow some brain cells!

That’s it for now.






For further reading, I recommend:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *