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An Old Brain

Note: The following was originally a post on age related decline in brain function on the Brainpower News Blog. The blog has been removed from the site and the content is now incorporated into the regular pages of the website.

The research has been pretty consistent over the years, showing that there are real declines in many areas of cognitive function as we get older. Being old means you have an old brain--to some extent. Memory is perhaps the most obvious area of difficulty, but attention and speed of thought process suffer as well. So what can we do about this? We have known that exercise, better diet and lots of mental activity can help, but there is more good news. Recent research is showing that we already do something about the changes without conscious intention; we become more emotionally mature.

Our emotions can help us with decision making and in social situations. As we age we generally control our emotions better, and use them in more effective ways. Joseph A. Mikels, in a recent article for Scientific American, says;

"When presented with emotionally charged situations, older individuals, for instance, use strategies that focus on the positive and minimize the negative. Such a focus brings benefits in that older adults experience fewer negative emotions and more positive emotions in their daily lives. But do these emotional gains have the power to assuage the cognitive losses?

My own recent research indicates that when older adults rely more on emotion to make decisions, the quality of their decisions is superior. In particular, we had older and younger adults make healthcare decisions (e.g., choosing a new physician or healthcare plan). We presented people with a choice between two alternatives, for instance a physician who participates in continuing education, interacts well with his staff, but has few years of experience versus another physician who is recommended by consumer organizations, but sometimes acts arrogantly and is not sensitive to individual patient needs. While participants were considering information of this sort, we had some of them focus on all the details and make their decision with careful analysis of the facts. For other participants, we had them consider all of the details but focus on how they felt about each of the physicians."

It was discovered that younger adults made better decisions using basic reasoning, while older subjects did better when they focused on their feelings. Furthermore, that approach allowed the older participants to do just as well as the young.

It has also been noted that it is more common for older adults to direct attention to common ground when facing a conflict with others, rather than focusing on on the negative aspects. This results in better relationships and easier navigation of social situations. In general the latest research shows that there is some compensation for age related decline in cognitive function, in the form of better use of feelings and emotions. An older brain is still a functional brain, and even has some advantages.

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