Grey Substance – Wise Substance

30. June 2009
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Alzheimer, dementia or just not memorizing things that well any more. Beyond the middle years the cognitive skill are going down the tubes. Wrong! Experienced brains are easier disturbed in their concentration but they save their experience much better.

“Starting many years before death the cognitive skills are dwindling faster and faster. And it happens to mentally healthy people as well.” 15 years before death the cognition of letters and forms starts going to the dogs, eight years before the spatial cognition follows and about six years before passing away language skills go along the way. Those frustrating statements and figures were published last summer by a group of scientists at the University of Goteborg/Sweden after they had observed nearly 300 test persons from the age of 70 until their death.

Early in their studies, students learn that the human brain decreases a whole lot earlier and people beyond their thirties are already beyond their maximum performance capability. Nevertheless – no reason to get desperate! “Old fogeys” shake off some of their younger colleagues point-blank in performing particular memory tasks. Dynamic whippersnappers are capable of adjusting to permanently changing situations in no time flat early in their careers and seem to learn easily. Nevertheless HR people keep going back to senior employees especially when teamwork or social competence is required. It is not just their experience qualifying them but also their eye for relations and the right conclusions they are capable of drawing.

The slow eye for the grant total

Lynn Hasher at the University of Toronto made her test persons, age around 20 and – as a comparison – those in their seventies, read stories with seemingly meaningless words interspersed. As expected the elderly had their problems with reading at pace and needed more time. In order to solve the following task though, the “disturbers” had to be used and brought into relation. The mature brains played off their experience in the process here. The error rate of the younger people was higher. Obviously youngsters are better capable of blocking out disturbing factors. “When solving a problem the elderly clearly benefit from the distraction in the previous task,” as Hasher describes the encouraging result.

Seniors achieved similarly good results when the right reaction was required for other reaction tests at the Institut für Arbeitsphysiologie (institute of occupational physiology) at the Dortmund University, test persons were required to push the button as soon as an arrow with according alignment showed in the target area on the monitor. Irritating arrows outside of that area disturb and defer the right decision. Although younger participants are quicker here as well they also produce more errors when distracted. The fast reacting often decided wrong. As soon as the brain is set to “push” there is no return. The slower one often is the better one here as well.

Creative reconstruction in the older days

And what’s the benefit here for the senior with a brain saying “goodbye” to more and more nerve cells by and by? Lynn Hasher illustrates the suitability of her tests for daily use: Whoever reads a book or an article with a ready-made mind often blocks out undesired facts. But exactly those facts might be relevant for another project. Experience is based on pulling together the seemingly separated. And here the elderly are far ahead of the ones born after them. And everyone not automatically blanking out the seemingly distracting influences also gains in personality. Harvard researchers showed that particularly creative people are sensitive for apparently distracting stimuli and later they include them in their ideas.

While aging not all parts of the brain degrade simultaneously but reconstruct. Cheryl Grady, colleague of Lynn Hasher in Toronto documents that the young and the old activate different areas when looking at the face of their vis-à-vis. Animal experiments prove that neighboring brain areas can take over tasks if individual centers decrease or completely fail. And for about ten years we also know that we are not only talking about new linking but also the creation of new nerve tissue. The aged brain uses both halves of the brain more equally as PET studies show. Mental degeneration cannot only be stopped but also reversed for particular skills.

Easy-going brains have more answers

Now what does the expert recommend for Brain-Anti-Aging? If you learn how to play a musical instrument or a new language you slow down the decrease as the Zurich neuropsychologists Lutz Jäncke points out. And do not close yourself up and stay at home! Because if you’re a socially active you permanently challenge your brain with constantly varying situations you have to react to – the perfect training.

Hans Gutzmann at the Hedwigshöhe Hospital in Berlin says: “You can expect wisdom or life prudence only from a matured brain.” “An older brain might be slower but it has more answers.” Plasticity is not an attribute of youth. If you do not keep your brain busy full-scale but only concentrate on life-preserving processes you will – despite your mental health – surrender to downfall of language and orientation in the last years before the end.

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