by Claire N. Agard, PhD, CCTP
The mind is the manifest of the brain! If you think about it, what we refer to as our “minds” is actually a collection of thoughts, feelings, and actions governed by the brain. There are regions of our brains that are responsible for many processes that we attribute to our “minds” (e.g., emotions/feelings, attention, memory, motivation, anxiety, and so on); however, while specific areas of the brain are specialized to perform specific functions, our entire brain is involved in everything we do! That’s correct! There is no activity that’s solely “right brain” or solely “left brain” as the two brain hemispheres constantly interact with each other to carry out all tasks. The exceptions are when there is damage to the fibres connecting the two sides, those rare instances in which the “bridge” between the sides is absent or partially absent at birth or when one hemisphere is removed; typically, as treatment for seizure disorder.
Just as our bodies change as we grow older so do our brains. All areas of the brain do not show age-related changes at the same time, to the same extent, or at the same rate; however, the entire brain shows age-related changes. It becomes smaller in size and volume, and lighter in weight. Brain regions responsible for such processes as planning and organization, impulse and emotional control, some forms of memory and attention, maintenance of balance and posture, and the ability to move our bodies/parts of our bodies at will show the biggest losses in size. Additionally, the outer covering of the brain that looks like it’s made-up folds thins with age, brain cells shrink and the number of connections between cells decrease. Some research has also shown age-related lessened generation of brain chemicals.
As you may have guessed, changes in our brains are reflected in the way our minds work; however, there is variation in how each person experiences aging as well as the point at which age-related changes become evident. As a person ages he/she experiences “cognitive aging”. “Cognitive aging” may be thought of as similar to the body becoming less efficient with age. The changes are subtle and gradual with the most obvious deterioration being in memory. There is difficulty recalling information, slower information processing, and less efficient problem solving. Recognizing information becomes much easier than recalling the information from memory (e.g., picking out the name of a city visited from among the names of several cities versus recalling the name of the city from memory). Older adults may sometimes forget events or things they were supposed to do or where they put things but remember later. They may forget something they were told and/or may go into a room and forget why they entered but remember quickly after.
Some aspects of attention may also deteriorate with age. An example of this is experiencing more difficulty blocking out conversations in a crowded room as you attempt to focus on the conversation in which you’re engaged. Splitting your attention between two different activities (e.g., typing while talking on the phone) also becomes more challenging with age and the older person may need to concentrate harder to keep up with conversations.
Information is processed at a slower rate as we age. Slower information processing may be evident in the older person needing more time taking in information and figuring out a response. Driving may become slightly challenging because, as you know, it requires the driver to notice and process several bits of information at the same time and then respond appropriately.
There are also obvious changes in language ability. An older person may have difficulty “finding” words and may need more time to do so when speaking or writing. This difficulty when speaking is referred to as the “tip-of-the-
tongue” phenomena. The efficiency with which one retrieves the spelling of familiar words may decline, as may the ability to immediately name common objects in one’s environment.
Finally, what is referred to as “executive functioning” may deteriorate with age. The “executive functions” are brain-based skills related to organizing, planning, exhibiting socially appropriate behavior, controlling emotions, adapting to change, solving new problems, and thinking abstractly. Changes in these areas may be evident in the older person performing tasks involving those skills less well and /or needing more time to complete them.
The aforementioned difficulties all refer to normal aging and not to development of any of the dementias. The major difference between normal aging and dementia (e.g., vascular dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, frontotemporal dementia, etc.) is that normal aging does not significantly affect a person’s daily life while the dementias do. There is more good news: biological age does not absolutely correspond to chronological, i.e., one will not definitely develop memory difficulties or walk slowly because one is 60 years old. Genetics, hormones, brain chemicals, lifestyle, and environmental factors all play a part in brain aging. Additionally, there are factors that contribute positively to age-related brain changes and ultimately to the way one’s mind functions. These are referred to as “protective factors” and include low to moderate alcohol intake, higher education and./or occupational levels, maintaining a healthy diet, and getting regular exercise.
Developing protective behaviors such as those above can slow down the rate at which your mind (brain) ages. A few others are:
• Quitting smoking/not developing a smoking habit.
• Maintaining a healthy weight.
• Staying involved in one’s community or in some other group activity outside of the home (e.g., volunteering, joining a social club or exercise class).
• Getting enough sleep.
• Doing something mentally challenging (e.g., learn a new language orto play an instrument, reading, taking a course on something that interests you, playing games that challenge you mentally such as chess, Battleship).
• Taking care of your physical health (e.g., monitoring blood sugar, getting all recommended, regular screenings, preventing, or managing hypertension).
• Retiring later in life (cognitive engagement helps to maintain brain health).
You may be wondering whether you should purchase “memory” supplements or “memory” games advertised on television. My answer is: find and read the summary of an article based on scientific research titled, A Summary on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community. In 2017 the Global Council on Brain Health, in conjunction with the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), found that the evidence for long-term health benefits of brain games is weak. Prior to the publication of that study, in 2016, the company behind Luminosity paid the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) a $2 million dollars fine because of unfounded claims about their program (National Public Radio, 2016). Also in 2016, the company behind the game LearningRx paid the FTC $200,000 for the same reason (National Public Radio, 2016). According to a 2021 publication by the Cleveland Clinic, the public should take claims that supplements benefit the brain “with a grain of salt” (Cleveland Clinic, 2021). Harvard Medical School (2019) went even further and bluntly advised not to buy them (Harvard Medical School, 2019). The conclusions of a study by Crawford, C et al (2020), included the following:
There are dietary supplements targeting brain health being marketed to consumers that should be considered adulterated and misbranded. Advertisements and product labels may be deceiving and could put the public at risk (p.265).
The scientific literature on how doing crossword puzzles benefits the brain is mixed, at best. On the other hand, it’s been accepted that crossword puzzles do improve one’s vocabulary and ability to find words. The jury is still out on whether they help to preserve brain functioning; however, an online search yields several sites claiming that they do. It is important to note; however, that the majority of those sites are nonscientific. My advice to you is, if you like to play word games such as Sudoku or to do crossword puzzles, keep on playing/doing them. There are benefits even if they’re not what you think they are. While you’re at it, develop and practice a few protective behaviors – they’ll help to keep your mind fit!
American Association of Retired Persons. (2017, July 25). How to improve your memory and brain health: New report finds that brain games are not a miracle cure. Brain Health & Wellness.
Cleveland Clinic. (2021, October 7). Do brain supplements actually work?: Get the scoop on memory supplements and brain vitamins. Brain & Spine. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/do-brain-supplements-work/
Crawford, C., Boyd, B., Avula, B., Wang, Yan-Hong., Khan, Ikhlas A., & Deuster, P. (2020). A Public Health Issue: Dietary Supplements Promoted for Brain Health and Cognitive Performance. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 26 (5), 265-272. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2019.0447
Harvard Medical School (2019, September 1). Don’t buy brain health supplements: Forget about those over-the- counter products that promise better memory. Mind & Mood.
National Public Radio. (2016, October 3). Brain game claims fail a big scientific test. Your Health. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/10/03/496120962/brain-game-claims-fail-a-big-scientific test