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Aging & Longevity

Senior citizens need to understand Cognitive Aging – not Alzheimer’s or dementia

New free report from Institute of Health is a good source for understanding the mental challenges of aging

By Tucker Sutherland, editor-publisher,

Cover of Cognitive Aging, report by Institute of Medicine, free onlineApril 23, 2015 –As one who for years nursed a mother as she faded into the abyss of Alzheimer’s and has written extensively on senior citizen topics, I am stunned at how little we know about “cognitive aging.” Still, AD and memory problems come up almost every time two or more senior citizens get together. A new book that is available free from the Institute of Medicine has already made me a whole lot better informed on cognitive aging and I hope it gets wide distribution.

It is actually a new report just released by the IOM that does a good job of explaining the public health dimensions of cognitive aging as separate from neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's and other dementias.

Besides being packed with information, the authors of Cognitive Aging: Progress in Understanding and Opportunities for Action call for increased research on assessing and maintaining cognitive health in older adults.

The term “cognitive aging” is relatively new, the book says, and therefore the public is less familiar with it than with terms for brain diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The level of awareness of Alzheimer’s disease is very high – generally well above 90 percent in older Americans.

But most seniors still have little understanding about the topic of dementias and tend to assume all cognitive problems – memory in particular – are related to dementia, as opposed to a normal aging process.

Facts to Remember

Age affects all organ systems: The brain ages, just like other parts of the body. The types and rates of change can vary widely among individuals.

Cognitive changes are not necessarily signs of neurodegenerative disease (such as Alzheimer’s disease) or other neurological diseases.

Actions can be taken by individuals to help maintain cognitive health.

The IOM report and its recommendations follow deliberations of a panel convened by the IOM to examine the public health dimensions and state of knowledge of cognitive aging. The report was released April 14 and, although it is available online now, the proofreading is not complete.

“Of the abilities people hope will remain intact as they get older, perhaps the most treasured is the 'stay sharp' - to think clearly, remember accurately, and make decisions with careful thought. Yet the brain ages,” the authors say.

“Cognitive functioning in older adults can improve in some areas, such as those related to wisdom and experience, and they can decline in others, such as memory, attention and speed of processing. Individuals vary widely in the specific cognitive changes that occur with age, in the nature and extent of cognitive aging, as well as in the ways these changes affect daily life.”


And they write, “While age-related declines on many standardized tests of cognitive abilities are well-documented, older adults may still maintain high levels of competence on most everyday activities because they are often able to compensate for declines in cognitive abilities with expertise and experience or environmental cues or support. The age-related changes seen in several domains of cognition have implications for behavior and function.”

They urge that some interventions for healthy aging - exercise, reducing risk of cardiovascular disease, and regular discussions with health professionals about medications and chronic conditions - be promoted to help maintain cognitive health.

An area of focus among the report’s 10 recommendations is aimed at the conduct and dissemination of independent reviews and guidelines for products claiming to affect cognitive health.

Throughout much of the report are interesting senior citizen research reports about the subject. For example -

  ● In 2013 a YouGov survey found that Americans of ages 60 years and older were more afraid of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia than cancer, heart disease, stroke, or diabetes (Alzheimer’s Association, 2014).

  ● The primary reasons why people are afraid of Alzheimer’s disease are: forgetting family, becoming a burden to the family, and not being able to take care of oneself. Additional reasons are the fear of losing their personality and who they are, and having had experience with someone who had the disease (Alzheimer’s Association, 2014).

  ● A small non-representative survey found that people over 50 years of age were more afraid of “losing my mental sharpness” than other risks, which included, in declining order, “losing my overall health,” “a family member losing their overall health,” “not being able to take care of myself,” “running out of money,” “getting a terminal illness,” and “losing a spouse” (AARP, 2014).

The study was supported by the McKnight Brain Research Foundation, AARP, the Retirement Research Foundation, the National Institute on Neurological.

>> The report is available online in several formats

National Institute on Aging References

NIA maintains an active research portfolio in cognitive aging and provides a number of resources for the public and health care professionals in this area. Among these are:

Understanding Memory Loss: We've all forgotten a name, where we put our keys, or if we locked the front door. It's normal to forget things once in a while. However, forgetting how to make change, use the telephone, or find your way home may be signs of a more serious memory problem.

This easy-to-read booklet explains the difference between mild forgetfulness and more serious memory problems; describes the causes of memory problems and how they can be treated; and discusses how to cope with serious memory problems.

List of Current NIA-Funded Age-Related Cognitive Decline Clinical Trials: This list of ongoing clinical trials contains links to information about trials, the trial location, and who to contact for additional information.

Brain Health Resource: This presentation toolkit offers current, evidence-based information and resources to facilitate conversations with older people about brain health. Designed for use at senior centers and in other community settings, it contains a PowerPoint presentation, an educator guide, handouts, and a resource list. Materials are written in plain language and explain what people can do to help keep their brains functioning best as they age.

Related News of Aging from our Archives

What is successful aging? Gerontologists still trying to reach agreement

Is the bottom line of ‘successful aging’ for many elderly Americans simply surviving with reasonable cognition and some mobility, or is it much broader - Feb. 16, 2015

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