Mental declines can be reversed

As we get beyond retirement age, most of us will not be as mentally sharp as we once were. But a researcher at the University of Alberta says most people have the ability to reverse the mental declines that come with aging.

“Can we reverse mental declines? Well, for most of us, the answer is yes, and I think that is definitely exciting and encouraging news,” said Dr. Dennis Foth, a professor in the University of Alberta Faculty of Extension and the academic director of the U of A’s Certificate in Adult and Continuing Education.

Foth and his research colleague, Dr. Gordon Thompson of the University of Saskatchewan, also found in their literature review that mental declines related to aging are not universal (they affect some more than others), and they are not pervasive (the declines normally affect different parts of our cognitive capacities to varying degrees).

Foth said mental declines are pathological for about 10 per cent of the general population over the age of 65, and not much can be done at this time to overcome the debilitating cognitive effects of diseases that affect the brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease. But for the other 90 per cent of the population, cognitive decline need not be inevitable.

“A lifetime of good mental habits pays off,” Foth said. “People who are curious at a young age are more likely to be mentally active and stay active as they age. And we found it is never too late to start. With a little effort, even people in their 70s and 80s can see dramatic improvements in their cognitive skills.”

There are many different types of classes and mental exercises that people can do to keep their minds vibrant, Foth said, but the trick to getting more people to maintain or even improve their cognitive abilities is “ecological validity”.

Ecologically valid activities are those that people do on regular basis as part of their daily lives, said Foth, whose paper with Thompson is published this month in Educational Gerontology.

Examples of “ecologically valid” activities that can improve mental capacity include reading, traveling, memorizing poetry, playing card games, doing crossword puzzles, learning how to play a musical instrument, taking continuing education courses and surfing the Web.

Foth and his colleagues are beginning to study these activities to determine which ones improve which cognitive skills. He believes this research can lead to the development of learning programs and activities that can isolate mental declines and reverse them. He added that attitude can play an important role in maintaining cognitive skills throughout life.

“People often describe their memory skills as being far worse than they actually are, and this type of attitude can start a vicious cycle,” Foth said. “These people won’t enroll in a class that might be beneficial to them because they believe they wouldn’t be good at it. We have to protect against that.”

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