Ageing is something we all have to go through. And one of the tragedies about ageing is that of mental or cognitive decline. Perhaps, like me, you feel like your brain just doesn’t work like it used to… or is it all in our heads? We’ve taken a look at the matter of ageing and whether we do actually get dumber as we grow older.
It seems ridiculous that millennials may already be preoccupied about ageing, considering the oldest of us are only hitting their 40s now and the youngest of us are already beyond our mid-twenties. However, experts agree that we all hit our mental peak in our mid-twenties and the data shows that our brains only decline beyond that point. So, even though it may not be something of immediate concern, you can take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone when you start forgetting people’s names and seem to be running out of mental bandwidth more often than you’d like.
The Atlantic‘s Eric Braverman explains how the brain ages and the rate at which our brains typically tend to decline.
“The difference between a resourceful mind and senility is only 100 milliseconds of brain speed,” he says. “We react to light in 50 milliseconds, recognise sound in 100 milliseconds, and think in 300 milliseconds. By the time thinking slows down to 400 milliseconds, we can no longer process logical thoughts. The neurons no longer fire off information fast enough for the rest of the brain to respond, and new information will not become embedded in memory.
“Typically, we lose seven to 10 milliseconds — a tenth of a second — of brain speed per decade from age 20 on, which means that ageing alone causes us to lose brain cells and processing speed. This minute change is very difficult to notice, even for the most tuned-in individuals, because ageing occurs at a constant rate.”
So, it seems that you just have to come to terms with the fact that you will be ageing and your brain is only going to slow down from here – and, while it happens you won’t even be able to notice. However, there are also some who think the data is flawed and that our brains don’t necessarily get slower, we just have a harder time working through the information in our heads when we’re older because we have so much more information to work through than we did in our twenties.
“The Tithonean account of ageing echoes loudly in the literature of the psychological and brain-sciences,” says Michael Ramscar, a linguist at the University of Tubingen, Germany, as reported by Forbes. “Many of the assumptions scientists currently make about ‘cognitive decline’ are seriously flawed and, for the most part, formally invalid.”
Ramscar argues in a blog post that some of the alleged effects observed in the analysis of the studies’ data depend less on the age of the subjects, than on the size of the sample.
He criticises the FAS task, where People are asked to generate as many words beginning with F as they can in 60 seconds, followed by as many words beginning with A in 60 seconds, followed by as many words that begin with S.
“The FAS task is a ridiculously simple measure,” says Ramscar. “All it asks of the people it tests is that they retrieve some words from their memories. It seems clear from these 134 results that the number of words people generate is sensitive to the context of testing, and that people’s sensitivity to testing contexts changes with age. In the light of this, it follows that, taken alone, FAS task scores cannot be considered to be an objective measure of memory retrieval processes over the adult lifespan.”
So while it seems obvious to us that ageing and mental decline are intertwined, it may be that our perceptions are entirely flawed. And this is important, given the roles we give elderly people in our society. By 2030, 72 million people in the US will be over 65. That’s double the figure in 2000, and their average life expectancy will likely have edged above 20 years. Europe also has an ageing population and it’s a problem Japan has been grappling with for decades, with almost a third of their population currently over the age of 65. So, for the developed world at least, we are going to need to change our perspectives on the elderly and retirement, and we need to find ways to preserve our cognitive productivity in the long-term.
In 39 countries around the world, the average life expectancy is now above 80 years. It’s almost a frightening thought to think how much longer our lives are going to be compared to previous generations.
So that leaves another question beyond “do we get dumber as we grow older?”
How do we keep our brains “in shape”?
By exercising regularly, getting good sleep, following a “Mediterranean diet”, staying mentally active and remaining socially active, Mayo Clinic found that you can stave away the process of age and cognitive decline.
There are no sure-fire formulas, and there’s no telling whether you’re susceptible to diseases like Alzheimer’s, which would completely destroy your cognitive ability regardless of how hard you work on keeping your brain in shape. But, if you want to retain your youthful exuberance and intellectual curiosity deep into your sixties, and beyond, you should start prioritising healthy habits. One of the best things you can do, so you don’t put unnecessary pressure on your psyche, is meditation.
So do we get dumber as we get older?
To answer this question, you’d probably have to ask yourself what that means. Does your brain slowing down make you “dumber”? Wisdom and having a huge body of knowledge to draw from can never be taken away… you may just take a while longer to do what seemed effortless when you were younger. But, as is the case with our bodies, you can prevent a complete degeneration of your mind with a healthy lifestyle and self-care.