New research bucks mental decline hypothesis in seniors

Coming back from a recent conference abroad, a patient asked me if I’m not yet tired of attending scientific meetings. After all, I’ll turn 69 in a few months and I should be thinking of retiring already and just enjoying life, she said.

I gave her an embarrassed grin and replied, “I want to keep on enjoying my life, so I keep my mind active and stimulated by continuing to learn new things in my field of practice.”

The common belief is that seniors are already far less mentally sharp than their younger counterparts, and may already have impaired decision-making. That misconception is way off from the truth. You only have to listen to people like former Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, lawyer Estelito Mendoza and President Duterte, and you’d agree that the critical decline in mental function in seniors is more of an old wives’ tale than fact. This is especially true for the 60-80 age group.

Mentally capable

We’re talking here about the usual physiologic aging of the brain, not those affected with severe dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. That’s a different story, since it’s already a pathologic condition and represents a diseased brain.

It’s true that the risk of developing dementia may be higher as one ages, but the far bigger majority in the 60-80 age group don’t have this, and still are mentally capable of accomplishing great things. They just need to unbelieve their false notion that their brains and bodies are “fully depreciated” and they can no longer learn new knowledge and skills.

The physical strength and capability of a 70-year-old individual may be a third or half that of a 40-year-old, but the overall mental capability of a senior—taking into account all aspects of cognitive or mental functioning—is likely to be still superior to that of his 40-year-old counterpart.

As the global population ages, we’ll have more heads of countries, top government officials, chief executive officers of big companies, creative artists, scientists and other seniors making breakthrough accomplishments in this age group. We believe justices should be considered to extend their tenure up to age 75, unless they have disabling medical conditions.More and more research is now getting published refuting the mental decline hypothesis in seniors. Last year, a paper from the Georgetown University Medical Center in the United States provided good arguments also countering this hypothesis.

The findings reaffirmed that the brains of seniors have actually improved in two of three key mental functions, like attention to new information and focus on what’s truly important in a given situation. In short, seniors and elderly have better ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. This ability is a critical aspect of cognition or mental function.

Although some functions like memory may be partly impaired in seniors, other functions like decision-making, self-control, being organized, and systematic and methodical thinking are improved. Other researchers have even found that mental capacity in navigation, math, language and reading is better in seniors.

Important consequences

In the Georgetown study, its principal investigator, Dr. Michael T. Ullman, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience and director of Georgetown’s Brain and Language Lab, said, “These results are amazing, and have important consequences for how we should view aging.”

He added that people have widely assumed that attention and executive functions decline with age.

Women participate in a Zumba session for International Women’s Month in March: The critical decline in seniors is an old wives’ tale. —RICHARD A. REYES

“But the results from our large study indicate that critical elements of these abilities actually improve during aging, likely because we simply practice these skills throughout our life,” he explained.

The study’s authors hinted that continuing to deliberately improve on one’s mental skills as one ages could be a protection against brain decline. We certainly agree. We tend to lose whatever we don’t use regularly. The same is true of our brain function.

In the study, the research team looked at three separate components of attention and executive function in a group of 702 participants aged 58-98. This age range has been shown in previous studies to have remarkable changes in mental functioning. Mental functioning, including decision-making, was believed to decline after age 55. This is probably the reason military personnel are made to retire at age 56.

The researchers studied the complex components in the brain network involved in alerting, orienting and executive inhibition. Each one involves different brain areas and different neurochemicals for proper functioning.

Alerting was defined as a state of enhanced vigilance and preparedness, which makes one respond to incoming information. Orienting is the ability to shift brain resources to a particular location in space. The executive network functions by inhibiting distracting or conflicting information, so as to allow one to focus on what’s important.

Alerting abilities

The authors explained that we use all three processes constantly and cited driving as an example. Alerting is the increase in preparedness when passing through an intersection. Orienting makes one immediately shift attention to an unexpected movement, such as a pedestrian crossing the street. Executive function inhibits distractions such as billboards or a passing airplane so one can stay focused on his driving.

According to the researchers, only alerting abilities declined with age. This was ably compensated by the significant improvement in both orienting and executive inhibition.

The researchers hypothesized that the elderly could keep on improving their orienting, inhibition and other related skills for life. This can adequately compensate for whatever neural declines may be associated with aging.

They further explained that orienting and inhibitory skills are important functions in numerous behaviors, hence, knowing that these are improved in the elderly could have wide-ranging implications.

One implication is that even in those with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, treatment could refocus on these areas of mental functioning, which may be able to deter the deterioration in the other mental functions, or at least, partly compensate for it.

Another implication is that it could possibly make governments and employers rethink the retirement age. Compulsory retirement at age 60 in private companies, and 65 in government agencies, may be quite early and prevent many physically and mentally able individuals from continuing to contribute their share in nation building.

When I turned 65, the Philippine Heart Association gave me a Lifetime Achievement Award. A colleague remarked that the award meant it was time for me to hang my stethoscope and retire. So I told the audience when I received the award: “I’m not done yet. I’m just warming up!” INQ