Hormonal changes happen to everyone as the body gets older.
And the brain subtly changes over time with them.
Scientists are piecing together sections of the giant puzzle and so far, they believe these general changes occur:
- Brain Mass: Shrinkage in the frontal lobes and hippocampus, both areas involved in higher cognitive function and encoding new memories starts at around 60 or 70 years of age.
- White matter: White matter is the myelinated nerve fibres that are bundled together and carry nerve signals between brain cells. Myelin is thought to shrink with age, and as a result processing becomes slower and there can be a reduction in cognitive function.
- Cortical density: Thinning of the outer, ridged surface of the brain is caused by a declining number of synaptic connections. Fewer connections also contributes to slower cognitive functioning.
- Neurotransmitter systems: Researchers are finding that the brain generates less chemical messengers as it ages. This causes a decrease in dopamine, acetylcholine, serotonin and norepinephrine. This seems to play a role in declining cognition and memory.
The Good News ….
For people who stay healthy and mentally active, we now know brain function need not decline with age.
Research shows that a lifetime of vigorous learning helps prevent or delay Alzheimer’s disease.
The challenge for ageing people is to reduce the rate of decline.
It is a tragedy how often people buy into the myth that our cognitive abilities inevitably diminish once we are in middle age.
You might enjoy this encouraging list from Psychology Today.
- Leo Tolstoy learned to ride a bicycle at 67.
- Queen Victoria began learning Hindustani at 68.
- Giuseppe Verdi was still composing operas in his 80’s.
- Somerset Maugham wrote his last book at 84.
- Frank Lloyd Wright designed his last building at 89.
- In their 90’s, Robert Frost was writing poems and George Bernard Shaw was writing plays. Georgia O’Keefe was painting pictures, and Pablo Casals was playing cello.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes was still dominating the Supreme Court until he retired at 91.
- Linus Pauling (chemist) was actively publishing just before his death at 93.
- Leopold Stokowski (conductor) recorded 20 albums in his 90’s and signed a six-year contract at 96.
Do you have a question for Allison?
Dr Allison Lamont
PhD (Psych), MA (1st), NZAC, NZPsS, APS, ASSBI.