In advance of National Older Americans Month this May, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued a report titled "Cognitive Aging: Progress in Understanding and Opportunities for Action." The report details changes in cognition -- essentially, brain functions such as memory, attention, decision-making and problem-solving -- as we age that affect our lives. The report also identifies positive steps we can take to counter these losses to promote cognitive health.
We are all aware of the physical changes that occur as we age: graying hair, wrinkles, and a tendency to gain weight. Less well understood, but of greater concern to our ability to live long, healthy lives are age-related changes in our brains. According to a recent AARP survey, staying mentally sharp is important to 93 percent of Americans, but few know how to maintain or improve brain health. Until recently, cognitive losses in healthy adults were viewed as an inevitable consequence of living longer causing alarm since our life expectancy has increased steadily over the years.
The Institute of Medicine report confirms the results of scientific research showing that cognitive aging is a natural process that affects everyone, to varying degrees, with both positive and negative effects. However -- and here is the good news -- each of us has the ability to strengthen our cognitive abilities throughout our lives, and to prevent, slow or even reverse cognitive decline, given the right interventions and adoption of healthy habits.
The report details three scientifically-supported actions we should take to protect our cognitive health as we age:
-- Make time for physical fitness: Regular aerobic exercise (three times a week for 50 minutes) will not only enhance physical health but also brain health, boosting blood flow to the memory center for the brain.
-- Reduce cardiovascular disease risk factors (including hypertension, diabetes and smoking)
-- Manage medications effectively
Through decades of research at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas, we have identified a specific approach to brain training that involves nine thinking strategies. We found that the brain training strategies not only improved cognitive performance, but also induced beneficial physiological strengthening of brain systems as well as real life changes.
Higher-level thinking skills -- decision-making, planning and judgment -- are controlled by the frontal networks, the brain's command operation. Frontal lobe fitness is key to our ability to thrive personally and professionally no matter what generation we are in. To stave off cognitive decline, it is important to stimulate these higher-order thinking skills throughout life.
Here are a few tips for keeping your brain (or your teen's brain) healthy and performing at a high level:
Teens and Young Adults -- Our education system emphasizes rote learning and memorization at the expense of higher-order thinking skills. Parents and teachers should encourage young people to develop their own unique interpretations of movies, and political discussions and to look for multiple possible solutions to problems rather than one "right" answer.
The greatest risk this young group faces is becoming addicted to distractions due to the enormous volume of information, stimulation and interruption coming from their smartphones and other devices. It is crucial to establish boundaries around use of technology and to encourage them focus on one idea, problem or task at a time.
Age 25 - 45 -- Key to success for this age group is being able to block extraneous information to focus on the ideas that are the most important. The notion of multitasking -- that we can do two or more things at once -- is a myth, and a dangerous one. The brain can only perform one task at a time. Far from making people more productive, multitasking exhausts the mind, decreases effectiveness and creates damaging levels of stress.
Age 46 - 65 -- Whereas this age group is losing capacity to process new information quickly and to store and retrieve data, the potential to think broader, deeper and from a higher perspective actually increases with age. Years of accumulated experience means those of us in this phase of life can easily identify what is important to know and what to ignore when presented with a huge amount of information. This ability can efficiently compensate for memory deficits. As we age, it is important to prioritize our to-do lists and take the time to filter large amounts of information and synthesize it into the most important ideas.
Over 65 -- Our cognitive perspective gets more positive as we age. Seniors tend to be happier and remember events and happenings in a positive light. Their accumulated wisdom allows them to make better decisions and solve conflicts more easily than younger generations. Seniors must continue to engage in complex mental activities to keep from losing ground in their cognitive capabilities.
I am grateful to the Institute of Medicine for publishing this report, which will enhance our understanding about this relatively new area of science. For thousands of years, people have searched in vain for the Fountain of Youth to stay young. However, science is pointing the way to a Fountain of Youth, which paradoxically is to embrace the continued potential of our aging mind. We retain tremendous power to strengthen and heal our brain's health throughout life.
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