Cognitive Aspects Of Aging

Several types of attention (concentration) abilities are compromised by age. We have trouble listening to two different things at once. If more than one person is trying to talk to us, we have trouble following either conversation. This may be due in part to a decrease in our hearing acuity. One of the conversationalists needs to wait.

We also have greater difficulty dividing our attention between two tasks. For example, we may experience greater difficulty trying to talk on the phone while hunting for an address in the phone book, or trying to talk to the cashier

From Tal D. Bonham, The Treasury of Clean Seniors'Jokes, Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1997,72.

while we write a check. A failure in the ability to switch attention is evidenced when we go into the bedroom to look for a book and then cannot remember why we went in there. This problem is fairly common throughout life, and occurrences may increase as we age.

Much of the cognitive loss that is commonly considered a part of the aging process is actually attributable to extrinsic factors such as lack of practice, poor motivation, diet, health complications, and fatigue, and poor conditions of the testing, etc. The older we get, the more robust our store of information and knowledge becomes. We need to be more efficient at managing our mental resources. Actually, some researchers consider young people to be suffering from a handicap of inexperience and lack of wisdom for which they compensate with a speedy mind.10

Although it is commonly believed that age brings a loss of brain cells, new evidence points to neurogenesis—the birth of new neurons.

neurogenesis—the growth of new brain cells

Although it is true that the idle mind slows more rapidly than the lively mind, keeping it active is not enough. If you work a crossword puzzle every day, for example, you are exercising those particular areas of the brain each day. Those connections are strengthened and maintained. However, you want to stimulate other areas of the brain as well. Do you remember Figure 4-1, which compares the brain activity while learning a new task with brain activity after the task is more commonplace? If not, go peek again for another rehearsal. When stimulation is new and novel, other areas are incorporated into the thinking process. Your mind must be exposed to new experiences and stimuli to keep it agile. New stimuli cause new connections to be made, and blood flow to those areas increases within days. Nevertheless, as soon as the new activity becomes more or less routine, activity decreases.

You may have heard about the concept of lifelong learning. You definitely need to continue learning throughout life in order to stay mentally alert. This learning can take place in or out of a formal classroom setting. Just continue learning and exploring opportunities that you encounter in your life every day. If there is something that you always wanted to learn more about or learn how to do, this is a great opportunity to begin. Not only will it give you great pleasure and enjoyment, but it will keep those neurons in shape and increase the number of those connections.


Wisdom is expert knowledge about the fundamental issues of life. Wisdom has experience as the basis of sound judgment. As we age, we acquire insights into life's structure based on hindsight. Having solved many problems in our lives, we are good problem solvers. Seniors are more flexible, more comfortable with the ambiguities of life, and more context sensitive when applying problem-solving strategies to real-life situations. When faced with real-life problems, older subjects score consistently higher than younger subjects, trained therapists, and professional counselors.11 As another example, although seniors read more slowly than the younger subjects, it was found that the seniors generated more ideas in general and more ideas central to the reading when asked to summarize. Many studies indicate that older adults compensate for slowing down by being more efficient at their tasks; although they may take a frac

I suppose

What are you doing? ...a jigsaw puzzle?


This is when we get a r—"■• -i-i...------.1

h pu

I suppose

What are you doing? ...a jigsaw puzzle?


This is when we get a r—"■• -i-i...------.1

tion of a second longer to reach a decision, it is usually a better decision. Wisdom comes with age.

"You can't help getting older, but you don't have to get old."— George Burns

© Minnie Ha! Ha! Studios, 1999.All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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