As we get older, almost all of us will notice a decline in our memory abilities. Most of us are able to cope with occasional memory slips and even joke about them. When scientists study the effects of aging on memory, they find that an older brain often needs more time to process new information. This slower processing speed affects all forms of memory: sensory, short-term, and long-term.
Although an older person is more susceptible to memory lapses and pathology that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease, the middle-aged brain (age 35 to 55) has a sweet spot when it becomes especially agile. During this period, the brain becomes more efficient at processing available information it has gathered over its lifetime. Vocabulary has been shown to improve during middle age, and neuroscientists believe that a growth spurt of the brain’s white matter may explain its neural agility. White matter serves as insulation for the long axons and facilitates more efficient communication between cells, allowing them to transmit information at an accelerated rate. While middle-agers complain about forgetting where they put their keys or glasses, many also notice their improved skills at running a business, seeing the big picture things, and figuring out novel ways to solve short-term memory issues.
The left and right hemispheres of the brain also begin to communicate better as the brain ages. Studies have shown that older individuals demonstrate improved mental abilities hen both sides of their brains work on a task together. In people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), memory training not only improves cognitive performance, but it engages a large network of brain regions that start working together during learning and recall. Our brains remain remarkably malleable even as plaques and tangles build up in sensitive memory centers.
Wear and tear over the years does takes it toll on neurons, but our brains naturally compensate when neurons misfire. Research indicates that the memory abilities of people who have a genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease are as good as those of people without the genetic risk, but their brains may have to work harder to perform a memory task in order to compensate for subtle age-related declines.
Unfortunately for many people, their compensation strategies ultimately break down and they eventually show some symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Regardless of whether or not someone has a genetic risk for Alzheimer’s, if they decide to take charge of their brain health, they may be able to starve off some Alzheimer’s symptoms for years by learning and practicing memory enhancement techniques.
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