This post builds on an earlier healthy memory blog post, “The Myth of Cognitive Decline.” That post summarized research in which simulations indicated that the slow down in processing by older adults could be accounted for by the vastly increased amount of information they have managed to store. The fact that crystalized intelligence, which is learned knowledge, continues to increase as we age supports this view. Simply put, there is much more information to sift through, hence the processing appears to be slower. However, in reviewing the research there are other factors contributing to this myth.
There is research on how the brain changes as we age. However, autopsies have found many individuals whose brains were wracked with the amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles that are taken as the definitive diagnosis for Alzheimer’s, yet showed no behavioral or cognitive indicators of Alzheimer’s when they were alive. Consequently, data on changes in the brain should be taken with a grain of salt.
What I find interesting are data indicating that some of the data pointing to poorer memory performance by the elderly are due to stereotypes of the elderly that are believed by the elderly. This is research showing that the elderly show evidence of memory decline when they think the study is about age differences and memory, but the decline is absent when they think that the study has nothing to do with aging (See the healthy memory blog post, “REDIRECT: Range of Applications”). So some of the myth of cognitive aging might be due to the elderly themselves believing in stereotypes about aging.
There is also research showing that, although the elderly know of memory strategies to help them remember, they do not use these strategies because they entail the expenditure of cognitive effort. That is, they are cognitively lazy. Unfortunately, this cognitive laziness can foster cognitive decline. This is where the notion “use it or lose it” applies. Similarly, physical decline can be accelerated by laziness and the failure to exercise.
So to reiterate a constant message of the healthy memory blog, it is important to stay cognitively, physically, and socially active throughout one’s lifetime. Moreover, one should not delay these habits until one advances in age. They provide a prescription for living a healthy, productive, and enjoyable life.
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