Passing 65

Just recently I passed my 65 birthday. Being at the forefront of the Baby Boomers, many more will soon be passing this milestone. For those who are younger, let me warn you how quickly this age descends upon you.

But what exactly is the significance of reaching 65? At one time it indicated that you were eligible for full Social Security Benefits, but not for us Baby Boomers. For us that age has been increased to 66. It also was the traditional age for retirement. Some people were forced to retire when they reached this age. So this meant leaving the productive workforce and beginning the pursuit of leisure activities.

But the significance of reaching 65 has changed and it involves more than the year increase in the required age to receive full Social Security Benefits. There are a variety of reasons for this change. One is demographic. People are living longer. This, in turn, has financial consequences. As people live longer a greater burden is placed on Social Security. A greater burden is also placed on the individual as Social Security Benefits were intended as a safety net and not as a guarantee for a comfortable retirement. So the retiree is confronted with the dilemma of how quickly to spend down whatever has been saved for retirement. There is the risk of outliving one’s money. There is also the risk of outliving the ability to enjoy one’s retirement nest egg. Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia have the prospect not only of outliving one’s ability to enjoy retirement, but also of outliving one’s ability to understand what is going on or even one’s personal identity. That is, the risk of outliving one’s memory.

My Mom is living in an assisted living facility. I visit her a couple of times each week. For the past several years I’ve watched her cognitive decline. Once we were able to enjoy watching television programs together. We were able to watch both sporting events and stories. I saw her ability to understand both the sporting events and stories slip away. When I gave her a Mother’s Day card, she thought she needed to sign it and send it on to her Mom. Now my Mom will be 99 in a couple of months, yet she thought that her mother was still alive. She confuses me with my brother who passed away some time ago. And I know that it is only a matter of time before she will no longer either recognize me or confuse me with my brother.

My primary objective is to die with my cognitive facilities intact. The psychologist Stine-Morrow has an interesting hypothesis about cognitive aging.1 She argues that choice in how cognitive effort, attention, is allocated may be an essential determinant of cognitive change over the life span. .  Stine-Morrow argues that cognitive effort can directly impact cognitive change in the form of attentional engagement and indirectly as it alters neuronal changes that give rise to component capabilities.  Her ideas coincide nicely with those of Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., a professor at the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscienses at the University of California at San Diego.  In turn, Dr. Merzenich’s ideas fit nicely with Kahneman’s Two System Theory (see blog post, “The Two System View of Cognition”). System One processes are effortful and require attention.  System Two processes, which are the product of learning and experience, are relatively effortless.   The older an individual is, the more developed are those System Two processes that facilitate cognition.  Consequently, there is a great temptation to rely upon these System Two processes and become a creature of habit.  Merzenich and the Stine-Morrow Hypothesis warn against relying too heavily on System Two Processes.  Effortful engagement of System One processes can be beneficial in warding off cognitive decline.  System One processes are engaged whenever we try or learn new things.  Thus engaging in new activities and in new areas of knowledge can be quite beneficial. 

Consequently, I am continuing to work and I plan on continuing to work as long as possible. My primary reason for working is that it forces me to use my System One processes and to learn and understand new concepts. Although I make use of my System Two processes that have developed over the years, I continue to learn new topics, new activities, and to meet new people. Yes, social engagement is critical to maintaining and growing a healthy memory. I also try to grow cognitively outside of work. This Healthymemory Blog is just one of those activities. I also engage in physical exercise and mental exercise. I try to maintain a positive attitude. I also try to watch my diet, although this item is engaged with less enthusiasm.  

1Stine-Morrow, A.L.  (2008).  The Dumbledore Hypothesis of Cognitive Aging.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16,  295-299.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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