It is true that age slows mental processing as well as working memory. The everyday recall we take for granted when we make coffee (how many scoops did I put in the pot?), set our keys down (where the heck are those suckers - I always put them here) or park the car (which row? What garage deck? Was it stolen?) to go to an event or shop are common frustrations that lead to loss of confidence and the rising fear that Alzheimer's awaits. It's also a fact of life that older brains take longer to learn new things and that as we age, often aggravated by impaired sight and hearing, we respond more slowly to external stimuli whether it be a question, a loud noise or a funny joke.
However, there is more to the aging mind than decline. Functional MRI and other brain imaging, which can map activity during problem solving, indicate that as we age, we actually use more but often different regions of the brain. In short, mental strengths shift. Some cognitive functions - like vocabulary and arithmetic abilities - tend to hold steady. So does well-practiced expertise like playing chess or the piano. Age tops younger people in two areas. With age, temperament mellows and emotions even out and more attention is paid to emotional well-being, including that of others. In addition, when it comes to wisdom, the aging mind consistently scores higher than younger adults on tests of life choices, handling conflict and ambiguity and setting priorities. Wisdom is not a strong suit of young people.
And there's more good news for the aging mind. Encouragement can be drawn from man's best friend. According to neuron-psychologist Elizabeth Head from the University of California - Irvine, her research has shown that exposure to a nourishing environment slows mental decline in aging beagles. Over a 3-year period, the combination of a healthy died with added fruit and vegetable extracts and antioxidant nutrients, along with regular exercise, kennel buddies, play toys and doggy school kept genetically similar old canines mentally younger than their couch potato peers.
Francis Bacon wrote, "Men of age object too much, consult too long, adventure too little and repent to soon." He also said that the young take on more than they can manage, "stir more than they can quiet" and are better at invention and execution that at judgment or advice. For best life purposes then, the solution lies in using the mental qualities of both young and old, allowing the strength of one to compensate for the other's weakness.
The younger generation's task is, therefore, to help its elders overcome hurdles to independence by staying close enough to make sure they are safe, engaged, content and active - remembering that our parents today will shortly be ourselves.
Peggy Nolen is a licensed professional counselor in Covington. She specializes in recovery from traumatic experience, depression, anxiety and problems with drugs and alcohol. She can be reached at (770) 314-5924.