Posts Tagged ‘Cognitive Decline’

What Happens As We Age

August 3, 2019

This is the fourth post on a new series of posts on Healthy Memory. Simulations have been done that support the notion that the vast amount of new information acquired over the years slows down our accessibility to information.

So rather than evidence of cognitive decline, senior moments can be regarded as evidence of all the information, and hopefully wisdom, seniors have acquired over their lifetimes.

Healthy memory posts on this topic can be found by entering “cognitive decline” into the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com.

Ramscar, M., Hendrix, P., Shaoul, C., Milin, P., & Bayan, H. (2014). Topics in Cognitive Science, 6, 5-42, presents the scientific evidence on this topic.

More on the Myth of Cognitive Decline

July 18, 2015

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.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Five Constructs for Executive-Related Cognitive Abilities

February 18, 2015

This post addresses five constructs, or factors, dealing with executive related cognitive abilities.  They are obviously important because these are cognitive abilities at the executive level.  They also have special relevance for aging memory.  These factors play an important role in the assessment of Independent Activities of Daily Living (IADL).  IADL plays an important role in determining whether individuals are capable of living independently.  These factors are working memory, inhibition, executive at the attention, problem solving, and fluency.  Each factor will be briefly explained and discussed with respect to the healthy memory blog, “The Myth of Cognitive Decline.”

The most common example given of working memory is trying to remember a phone number you have just be given or read until it is dialed.  This is the magic number of 7 plus or minus two that has been revised down to five plus or minus two.  Actually, the size of the individual items affects the number that can be remembered.  Information must be rehearsed or actively used  or the information will be lost.  As the “Myth of Cognitive Decline” is addressing the phenomena of long term memory, working memory is not part of the myth.  Working memory does tend to decline as we age, although research has been done to demonstrate that it can be enhanced.

Inhibition refers to irrelevant information coming to mind when you are trying to remember or solve a problem.  This does increase as we age.  And it is the large amount of information held in long term memory that the “Myth of Cognitive Decline” addresses, that is likely increasing inhibition.  Simply put, there is more information to serve as the source of inhibition.  Given enough time, this inhibition can be overcome.

Executive attention refers to the managing and selection of information in trying to perform some task or to solve some problem.  The problem here for us as we age is that there is more information to attend to.  Again, given enough time, decreases in this ability can be overcome.

Problem solving refers to the marshaling of attention to solve  a problem.  Examples of problems addressed with IADL are planning a meal, planning a trip, managing finances, and so forth.  Although the more experienced mind has more information to solve problems, when there are time constraints, the additional information can be a problem as captured in the statement, “too much knowledge for one’s own good.”

Fluency is the ability to generate ideas or certain types of words (words beginning with “q”, vegetables, and so forth).  Here the older brain is at an advantage, but again, the pressures of time constraints can create problems.  A caveat to the “Myth f Cognitive Decline” is “given enough time.”

Recall, particularly of information from longer term memory, often involves problem solving.  When trying to remember the forgotten name of a particular actor for example, one might try to remember the movies the actor was in, the dates of the movies, and other actors.  Sometimes remembering a particular sound can help in the generation of candidate names.  What is interesting about these attempts is that the memory will suddenly pop into mind hours or days later.  Apparently memory search has been continuing in our non-conscious minds.  This is one of the reasons I think that these periodic memory searches contribute to memory health.  When we do these searches we are activating long unused memory circuits and reactivating them.  I have no carefully controlled research to back up my conjecture, but I think it is a compelling conjecture.  Perhaps some graduate student will undertake this research for a Master’s Degree or Ph.D.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

There Will Be Another Brief Hiatus in New Posts

February 1, 2015

Nevertheless with more than 550 Healthymemory Blog posts I think there is sufficient reading material.  If I had to recommend one blog post to read it would be “The Myth of Cognitive Decline.”  This can be found by entering this title in the search box of the healthy memory blog.  This search block can be used to identify blog posts on the following topics.

Posts based on whom I regard as the most important cognitive psychologists:  Nobel Prize Winner Kahneman, plus Stanovich and Davidson.  There are posts on the important topics of attention and cognitive reserve.  Other topics of potential interest are The Flynn Effect, mindfulness, meditation, memory champs, contemplative computing, behavioral economics, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.

Of course, you are encouraged to enter any of your favorite topics into the healthymemory blog search block

Enjoy.  I shall return.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Phrase That Should Be Considered Obscene

October 12, 2014

That phrase is “senior moment.” First of all, it is an instance of ageism, which is just as pernicious as racism or any of the other “isms.” But more importantly, it is inaccurate. Regular readers of the healthymemory blog post, should have immediately recognized this inaccuracy. This topic has been broached in many posts. Consider only the immediately preceding post, “You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks, “ and an earlier post “The Myth of Cognitive Decline. New neurons are continually being generated as we age, and the brain is rewiring itself to account for changes as we age. Any apparent slowness or difficulty in retrieving information is due to the massive amounts of information storage and learning that has occurred during these additional years.

Unfortunately, sometimes this phrase is used as a polite excuse for being slow to recall. Perhaps a substitute phrase should be “due to extreme amounts of information (or perhaps, wisdom, depending how strongly one wishes to push it) there has been a delay in accessing this information. I’ll get back with you when it becomes available.”

The worse use of the phrase is when it becomes a belief. It is easy to think that cognitive decline is inevitable and to accept it. Not only does such a belief become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it accelerates the rate of any decline. We do experience physical decline, but to use any noticeable decline as an excuse for giving up physical activity just increases the rate of decline. We must push ourselves to continue activities as we age.

Similarly, we must not decrease cognitive activities or avoid cognitive challenges as we age. There is reason to believe that we can not only slow the decline, but that we can also continue cognitive growth as we age. We must remain cognitively and socially active as we age and not beg off with the excuse of “senior moments.”

Remember that autopsies have revealed brains wracked with the neurofibril tangles and amyloid plaques that are regarded as the signatures for Alzheimer’s, but whose owners never evidenced any symptoms of Alzheimer’s when they were alive.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Why Our Brains Never Fill Up

September 7, 2014

The answer to this question can be found in the September/October 2012 Scientific American Mind in the article “Making New Memories.” Actually readers of the healthymemory blog should already know the answer to this question. The answer is neurogenesis. Neurogenesis is a process that does not stop when we age. It continues until we die. Now the hippocampus is one of only two sites in the adult brain were new neurons grow. They grow in the region of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus. The rate of neurogenesis in the hippocampus is estimated to be 1400 neurons a day. This is important as the hippocampus plays a central role in memory.

There is an expression, neurons that fire together wire together. This expression captures the concept of the Canadian psychologist Donald O. Hebb’s Cell Assembly Theory. One problem has been that most cell assemblies are associated to other cell assemblies and so forth and so forth. Although this is the basis for cognitive enrichment, how are all these cell assemblies distinguished? In 1995 the psychologists James L. McClelland, Randall C. O’Reilley, and Bruce L. McNaughton proposed that the cerebral cortex forges these connections and the hippocampus tags cell assemblies so that distinct memories are filed away. But where did these new neurons come from to keep these memories distinct? At that time it was thought that we only have the neurons with which we are born. We even lose many of those neurons very early in life. It was not until the late 1990’s that neurogenesis was discovered. Subsequent research has indicated that this neurogenesis continues until we die. So these neurons are being created just when they are most needed! See the healthymemory blog post, “What is Neuroplasticity and How Does It Work.”

So key to keeping and maintaining your memory is to build a healthy hippocampus. To learn how to build your hippocampus, see the healthymemory blog post, “”To Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocampus.”

Growing old is no excuse for old dogs not learning new tricks. Growing old is no excuse for not continuing to learn and do new things. Cognitive decline is a myth. See the healthymemory blog post, “The Myth of Cognitive Decline.” Cognition might slow down as we age and, although there are some biological factors underlying part of this, the brain adapts. Apparent slowness and occasional forgetfulness, so called “senior moments,” are likely the result of the vast amounts of information that are stored in the elderly brain. This is especially true of the elderly brain that has spent a lifetime growing and learning. It takes more time to process and retrieve information from this enlarged network. Apparent slowness might well be due to cognitive richness rather than cognitive decline.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Myth of Cognitive Decline

February 23, 2014

“The Myth of Cognitive Decline: Non-Linear Dynamics of Lifelong Learning”1 is certainly one of the most important scientific articles I have read in recent years. Contrary to the commonly accepted notion that cognitive information processing capabilities decline across adulthood, the article makes a compelling argument that older adults’ changing performance reflects memory search demands, which increase as experience grows.

This argument is based on a series of simulations that show how the performance patterns observed across adulthood emerge naturally in learning models as additional knowledge is acquired. The simulations identify greater variation in the cognitive performance of older adults, and also predict that older adults show greater sensitivity to fine-grained differences in the properties of test stimuli than younger adults. In other words, the results indicate that older adults’ performance on cognitive tests reflects the predictable consequences of learning on information processing and not cognitive decline.

Simply put, the more information we have as we age can slow down the retrieval of information and make it more difficult to distinguish differences among items in memory. Here it is wise to revisit the distinction between information availability and information accessibility. Information can be available in memory, but we simply cannot access it. Many times we know we know something, but simply cannot recall it. These are the cases when information is available but not accessible. Frequently, I try to recall some piece of information, say an actor’s name, but just can’t seem to locate it. Sometimes I shall challenge my wife and see if she remembers. Sometimes she does, and sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she will come up with a partial cue that leads to the desired memory. I try to resist the temptation to Googling it in these situations as I think these attempts at retrieval aid keeping the memory healthy.  They force us to revisit infrequently visited memory circuits. What is interesting is that long after I have consciously given up the search and resisted Googling it, the desired memory will suddenly pop into mind. This might occur the next day, perhaps even several days later. This is a good example of how a long latency might be mistakenly interpreted as a memory loss.

One might argue that these conclusions are based on simulations rather than on human experiments. Research into this topic is currently underway using humans. The problem with using human participants to research this problem is that it is difficult to control or estimate important variables. In these cases, simulations can actually provide more accurate answers.

There is the observation that cognitive decline really kicks in around 60 or 70. What is the basis for this observation? How can it be explained? Here is the explanation taken directly from the Ramscar article on p. 34: “If a common environmental change like retirement was to systematically reduce the variety of contexts people encounter in their lives, learning theory predicts that the amount of contextual information they learn will drop further, as the background rates of cues in the remaining contexts rise (Kruschke,2 Ramscar et al3). It follows from this that if people were to increasingly spend time in environments where any cues have high background rates already (family homes), any effects arising from their cumulative experience of learning to ignore task irrelevant contextual (background) cues will be exacerbated . In other words because discriminative learning by its very nature reduces sensitivity to everyday context, retirement is likely to make memories harder to individuate and more confusable, absent any “cognitive declines,” simply because retirement is likely to decrease contextual variety at exactly the time when the organization of older adults’ memories needs it most.”

In other words, as you have read in previous healthymemory blog posts, retirement can foster cognitive decline. So retirements need to be active, so that people can continue to grow cognitively and have social engagements in varying contexts. Obviously I am biased, but I think that reading the healthymemory blog and following some of its practices provides a good start.

It is certainly true that there can be pathologies that cause cognitive decline. Unfortunately, what is the normal performance of what are truly healthy memories can be misinterpreted as cognitive decline.

1Ramscar, M., Hendrix, P., Shaoul, C., Milin, P., & Bayan, H. (2014). Topics in Cognitive Science, 6, 5-42.

2Krushke, J.J. (1996). Base Rates in Category Learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition. 22, 3-26 .

3Ramscar, M., Dye, M., & Klein, J. (2013). Childrean value informativity over logic in word learning, Psychological Science, 24, 1017-1023.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Aging and Decline: A Self-fulfilling Prophecy?

March 24, 2013

An article in the Alexandria/Arlington Local Living insert of the March 14 Washington Post titled “Getting Stronger After a Century” inspired this healthymemory blog post. This article is about a man who did not start working out until he was 98. He is now 102 and is “able to curl 40 pounds, work out vigorously on a rowing machine and deftly pluck bouncing eight-pound kettle balls from the air with the hand-eye coordination of a much younger man.” The article later states that experts say that many people don’t realize that problems they associate with old age actually are caused by poor fitness. In other words, the experts are saying that the poor fitness aging individuals experience is, in large part, a self-fulfilling prophecy. People believe that this physical decline is a natural part of aging and start declining. If people would just start exercising, they could preclude or remediate many of these problems.

I believe that the same problem occurs with respect to mental fitness. People believe that mental decline is a natural part of aging. There are data showing that the average retirement ages of countries and the age of the onset of dementia for these same countries are correlated. That is, the earlier the retirement age, the earlier the onset of dementia. It isn’t retirement per se that is responsible, but rather the decline in social interactions, cognitive activities, and challenges (problems) that result in dementia.

So if you are retired you need to keep up social interactions and cognitive activity. Use your computer and keep learning new things. Read and take classes. And you don’t want to wait until you retire to start these activities. They should be lifelong activities. Nevertheless, it is never to late to start. Consider the gentleman in the article who did not start exercising until he was 98.

As the title of this blog implies, the healthymemory blog is devoted to healthy memories. It is constantly providing new, worthwhile information for your consideration. The category of transactive memory considers how you can employ others and technology for cognitive growth and health. The mnemonic techniques category includes articles on techniques that not only improve your memory, but also provide valuable cognitive exercise. Articles on mindfulness and meditation can also be found under this category. The Human Memory: Theory and Data includes posts on this very interesting and important topic. This is a good area in which to grow cognitively.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.