Have you ever wondered how our brains change as we get older? Well, researchers Zihl and Reppermund have tackled this fascinating topic in their latest article titled “The Aging Mind: A Complex Challenge for Research and Practice.” Published in the journal Aging Brain, the article explores the various ways aging can affect our brain function, and the challenges faced by both researchers and practitioners in understanding and addressing these changes. So if you’re curious about how our minds age, this is definitely a must-read!
As we age, our cognitive abilities decline, but this process is not simple, and there is no simple link between the changes in cognition and changes in the brain. This means that standardized cognitive testing is not enough to assess cognitive skills.
The paper suggests a more holistic approach to assess individual everyday tasks and their cognitive requirements in functional terms to have a reliable assessment of cognitive skills. Additionally, the article highlights the importance of motivation, emotions, personal meaning of life, and life satisfaction in understanding and dealing with the consequences of mental aging.
The authors of the paper propose a comprehensive standard for mental aging studies that focus on non-biological factors and involve different disciplines such as psychiatry, neurology, psychology, occupational therapy, neuroimaging, neuroendocrinology, internal medicine, and genetics. This multidisciplinary approach and cooperation between all disciplines and professions are essential to support older people.
The article also discusses the relationship between morphological changes in the aging brain and cognitive abilities, as well as the concepts of brain reserve and cognitive reserve. Age-related morphological changes in the brain are not always associated with a decline in cognitive abilities. Compensation mechanisms can be responsible for this discrepancy, such as takeover of impaired functions by other structures or co-activation of additional structures within a functional network.
Factors that contribute to acquiring, increasing, and conserving cognitive reserve include genetic factors or predispositions, health, mood, lifestyle, and social factors. Engaging in physical and social activities can help maintain or regain mental health and prevent the pathological consequences of unfavorable developments.
The paper also highlights the role of resilience, meaning of life, and quality of life in the context of aging. Finding an individual meaning in life and the resulting actions and evaluations seem to be decisive for how satisfied people are with their own quality of life. Education should impart knowledge about different forms of life quality and life satisfaction, and their influences on one’s own long-term mental life development.
Mental health is a dynamic state of internal equilibrium that allows individuals to use their abilities in harmony with universal values of society. It comprises cognitive and social skills, the ability to recognize, express and modulate emotions, empathy, flexibility, and the ability to cope with adverse life events, among other things. Protective and risk factors can affect cognitive and social activities in older age.
Regular physical, cognitive, and social activities, as well as engagement, are known to have protective effects, possibly via cardiovascular fitness. Postponing retirement, particularly in cognitively and socially “enriched” occupations, can be a favorable factor. Chronic stress is associated with various biological alterations, including in the brain, and can have deleterious effects on cognition.
Sufficient cognitive, motivational, and emotional resources act as protective reserves and have a very beneficial effect on the quality of life in older age. Functional loss of vision, audition, or motor skills can limit social participation and mobility, but not necessarily prevent it. Non-pharmacological preventive measures can contribute to maintaining cognitive functions in older people, including cognitive strategies, routines, and habits that enable the individual to master the challenges of life and maintain a good quality of life.
To improve research on mental aging, basic and applied disciplines should collaborate closely, and bridges between science and health and social policies should be increased to reduce gaps. Large and diverse subject samples with multiple variables are needed to identify specific subgroups with special characteristics or profiles.
Overall, this paper highlights the importance of a holistic approach to mental aging and the need for a multidisciplinary approach that goes beyond standardized cognitive testing. It emphasizes the role of motivation, emotions, personal meaning of life, and life satisfaction in understanding and dealing with the consequences of mental aging.
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Zihl, J., & Reppermund, S. (2023). The aging mind: A complex challenge for research and practice. Aging Brain, 3, 100060. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nbas.2022.100060