- The aging brain is subject to a dreary litany of changes.
It shrinks, Swiss cheese-like holes grow, connections between neurons become
sparser, blood flow and oxygen supply fall. That leads to trouble with
short-term memory and rapidly switching attention, among other problems.
And that's in a healthy brain.
- But it's not all doom and gloom. An emerging body of
research shows that a surprising array of mental functions hold up well
into old age, while others actually get better. Vocabulary improves, as
do other verbal abilities such as facility with synonyms and antonyms.
Older brains are packed with more so-called expert knowledge -- information
relevant to your occupation or hobby. (Older bridge enthusiasts have at
their mental beck-and-call many more bids and responses.) They also store
more "cognitive templates," or mental outlines of generic problems
and solutions that can be tapped when confronting new problems.
- Eric Kandel, 77 years old, who shared the 2000 Nobel
Prize in medicine, maintains an active lab at Columbia University and mentors
younger scientists. "I think I do science better than I did when I
was younger," he says. "In science, judgment is so important,
and I now have a better understanding of which problems are important and
- Growing awareness that old brains aren't necessarily
senile brains is already fueling a slew of consumer offerings. Brain exercises
developed for older adults by Posit Science Corp. In San Francisco are
being offered by retirement communities, senior centers and assisted-living
facilities, as well as by insurers such as Humana to their Medicare enrollees.
The computer-based program includes exercises intended to improve memory
and attention, as well as sharpness of hearing. Continuing, peer-reviewed
studies conducted by Posit scientists suggest it can roll back the mental
agility calendar by at least a decade.
- Some retirement communities and assisted-living centers
are installing a touch-screen-based cognitive fitness program developed
by Dakim Inc. Of Santa Monica, Calif., that gives seniors practice on seven
cognitive skills, including language and the kind of visual-spatial processing
that helps you read a map. The system uses "age-appropriate"
film and audio clips, such as Jimmy Stewart movies, as the basis for short-term
memory exercises and adds new exercises every 24 to 48 hours.
- Discoveries of brain functions that hold up, or even
improve, through the decades could affect corporate and public policy.
As baby boomers age, many are resisting mandatory retirement. In January,
a special committee of the New York State Bar Association recommended that
law firms abandon the practice. Air-traffic controllers are asking federal
agencies to reconsider the requirement that they retire at age 55, and
the Federal Aviation Administration in January proposed pushing back the
mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots, which is currently 60.
- The emerging neuroscience is on their side. One of the
most robust cognitive abilities is semantic memory, which is recollection
of facts and figures. "Semantic memory is relatively resistant to
the effects of aging," says psychology professor Arthur Kramer of
the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Semantic memory includes
vocabulary, which increases with age so reliably (at least in people who
continue reading) that a younger person should never challenge a sharp
75-year-old to a crossword puzzle.
- Watch a video about simple exercises called "neurobics"
for the aging brain.
- Expert knowledge -- information about an occupational
or even hobbyist specialty -- resists the effects of aging, too, which
is why mumbling "accrued postretirement liabilities" to an 80-year-old
actuary makes his relevant synapses fire as robustly as they did at age
40. Synapses that encode expert knowledge "are written in stone,"
says neuroscientist John Morrison of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine
in New York.
- The longevity of expert knowledge and cognitive templates
lies behind the finding that air-traffic controllers in their 60s are at
least as skilled as those in their 30s. When Prof. Kramer of Illinois and
a colleague at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gave older controllers
standard lab tests for reaction speed, memory, attention and the like,
they found the usual: Performance declined compared with that of 30-somethings.
- But on more fast-paced, complex -- and hence realistic
-- tests in which they juggled multiple airliners and handled emergencies,
the senior controllers did as well as or better than the young ones. They
kept simulated planes safely away from each other, and when they ordered
planes to change their altitude, heading or speed to avoid a collision,
they used fewer commands than younger ones. It was as if their experience
had equipped them with the most efficient algorithm for keeping the planes
- "Their experience and their knowledge of aircraft
types and strategies they've used for years can compensate for a decline
in these other abilities," says Prof. Kramer, who has submitted the
study to a science journal. The findings, he says, suggest the need to
revisit "the whole notion of when we need to retire people, since
their ability to do these complex tasks resists decline."
- That 60-somethings can mentally juggle multiple 747s
seems to go against the idea that aging hurts the ability to pay attention.
But studies show that selective attention, the ability to focus on something
and resist distractions, doesn't decline with age. For controllers, that
means they can focus on planes in their sector despite a hubbub of activity
in the control tower. For other seniors, it means no problem keeping eyes
and mind on a highway despite flashing road signs or noisy passengers.
- The biggest benefit of an older brain is that fewer real-life
challenges require deliberate, effortful problem-solving. Where once it
took hours of methodical scrutiny to understand a prospectus, for instance,
older lawyers and investment bankers can zoom in on crucial sections and
fit them into what they already know.
- Elkhonon Goldberg, a neuropsychologist who has a private
practice and is a professor at New York University School of Medicine,
finds that he can also grasp the essence of data presented in scientific
papers more readily than he once could, something that more than makes
up for losses in other mental realms. "I am not nearly as good at
laborious, grinding, focused mental computations," he says, "but
then again, I do not experience the need to resort to them nearly as often."
- While younger brains solve problems step-by-step, older
brains call on cognitive templates, those generic outlines of a problem
and a solution that worked before. It's the feeling you get when you see
that a new situation or problem belongs to a class of situations or problems
you have encountered before, with the result that you don't have to attack
them methodically. Yes, older people forget little things, and may have
occasional attention lapses, but their cognitive templates are so rich
that they more than hold their own. Their brains can keep up even with
a diminished supply of blood and oxygen.
- Professional Benefits
- As a result, older professionals can readily separate
what's important from what's not, a big reason so many of them fire on
all cognitive cylinders well past age 65. "I'd say that the ability
to make a significant contribution as a lawyer actually increases with
time, experience and age," says attorney Mark Zauderer, 60, a partner
in the New York law firm Flemming Zulack Williamson Zauderer.
- In complex business litigation, he says, where pretrial
discovery can yield enough documents to fill a warehouse, "a lawyer
must be able to sort the wheat from the chaff, to take all these facts
and extract only those that support winning themes. A senior lawyer is
in the best position to do that, and to have the courage to discard facts
-- even those on your side -- that will only distract the court or the
- "Some things you just need to grind into your system
for many years until they become automatic and seemingly effortless,"
says Naftali Raz of the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State University
in Detroit. "That may be the key. Automatic functions are least sensitive
to aging. So, if the decisions are based on knowledge and skill, older
folks may have an advantage over younger decision makers just because they
have to do less mental heavy lifting."
- More research is coming. Although studies on aging have
long focused on diseases such as Alzheimer's, scientists are increasingly
investigating healthy aging, trying to discover which factors allow some
people to resist the usual ravages of time, and to get a better sense of
how well older adults can function. The National Institutes of Health,
the nation's leading funder of biomedical research, doesn't break out "healthy
aging" as a separate budget item, but spokeswoman Linda Joy says that
more funding is going to studies of people who reach their 60s, 70s and
beyond with little or no disease. Scientists hope that by identifying which
mental functions are largely untouched by aging, they will be able to develop
treatments or exercises to shore up functions that do deteriorate.
- The benefits that come to the mind and brain with age
extend beyond thinking. They also include a greater ability to put yourself
in another person's mind, empathizing and understanding his thought processes
-- emotional wisdom. Civil engineer Samuel Florman, 81, remains active
in his Scarsdale, N.Y., construction company and says that as he has grown
older, he "has gotten better with people, more understanding of young
people and more patient with aggressive ones. I'm more savvy about when
to rush and when not to."
- Controlling Anger
- That likely reflects the older brain's greater control
over emotions, especially negative ones such as impatience and anger. A
2006 study of 250 people ranging in age from adolescence to their late
70s documented for the first time "positive changes in the emotional
brain," according to the Society for Neuroscience, which publishes
the Journal of Neuroscience. In the experiment, Leanne Williams of the
University of Sydney showed the volunteers pictures of faces expressing
emotions. Using fMRI brain imaging, it was found that circuits in "medial
prefrontal" areas -- right behind the forehead -- were more active
in older people than younger people when processing negative emotional
expressions. The greater activity suggests better control of reactions
to other people's anger, fear and the like. This greater sensitivity seems
to translate into decreasing neuroticism, and greater emotional equanimity.
- That doesn't mean older brains flatline when it comes
to sensitivity. Instead, they often show a keen emotional intelligence
and ability to judge character. Elderly volunteers given a list of behaviors
that describe a made-up person ignored irrelevant information (favorite
color, place of birth) when asked to judge the person's character and focused
on revealing traits better than younger people did, according to research
by Thomas Hess, a professor of psychology at North Carolina State University.
They were more likely to infer correctly that the person was dishonest,
kind or intelligent -- a skill that is arguably more important than the
ability to memorize a list of words in a lab experiment.
- Write to Sharon Begley at email@example.com