Changes in the body with age develop because the efficiencies of all working systems in our bodies gradually decline. This can be quite frustrating for older adults. The brain is no exception.
Researching the internet for articles to better understand changes in the body with age – being in my golden years, and fast approaching senior citizenship, I stumbled on an article by the Harvard Medical School Publishers that gave me a jolt. It also threw out some of my previous misconceptions about aging and mental function – called cognitive function by medics.
My interest was highly piqued – since the human brain is responsible for all body functions – and I decided to conduct a further drill down into this topic. The findings on changes in the body with age are pretty fascinating. A brief refresher is provided for those readers who would like to initially understand the basics of structure of the brain and its role in mental function.
Changes In The Body With Age – Brain Basics and The Nervous System
The brain is an intriguing organ weighing just a little over 3 lbs, but is the most complex organ of the human body. It is responsible for the senses, emotions and feelings, thinking and memory, language and communication, and movement and control.
The brain and spinal cord form the central nervous system. Both the origin of the spinal cord and the brain itself are surrounded and protected by the bones of the skull, cerebrospinal fluid and the vertebral column (backbone).
Spinal nerve fibers arise from the spinal cord and exit through openings between the vertebrae to transmit messages to and from every part of the body.
The brain is made up of 4 structures: the Cerebellum, Cerebrum, the Pons, and the Medulla.
Watch this short and easy to understand 3-minute National Geographic video on Brain 101 below to put it all in perspective
The brain has more cells than it requires to do most activities—a feature called redundancy and, it is also able to compensate for the loss of nerve cells that occur with aging.
As cells are lost, new connections are made between the remaining nerve cells. New nerve cells may form in some areas of the brain, even during old age.
Changes In Body With Age – The Normal Aging Brain
Age-related changes in how the brain manages memory, thinking and other mental processes are called “cognitive” changes. It must be emphasized that this is not a disease, although the word may sound alarming to some-one not in the medical field.
Scientists previously thought that brain connections developed rapidly in the first few years of life, until mental peak was reached in the early 20s following which cognitive abilities would level off around middle age, and start a gradual decline.
With further advances in science, it is now known that this is inaccurate and that the brain is continuously changing and developing throughout human life.
This process, called “brain plasticity” is driven by our individual experiences, habits and the learning of new information.
Some cognitive functions become weaker with age – taking longer to learn new things, while others actually improve – ability to utilize different sources of information to capture the “big picture” (Harvard Medical School Publishers 2020).
Like other age-associated changes in the body, the decline in efficiency of mental function in cognitive aging is gradual.
More importantly, it is different for each person based on their genes, lifestyle and environmental factors.
Known changes include a shrinkage in the brain mass and a thinning of the outer ridged surface of the brain.
Other changes include a decrease in the levels of chemical substances involved in sending signals to the brain. Nerve cells may also lose some of their receptors for these chemical signals and may therefore conduct signals more slowly.
These cells may repair themselves more slowly and incompletely as blood flow to the brain decreases.
Normal Cognitive Health
The ability to clearly think, interpret and respond to sensory function and emotions, learn, and recall information, control movement and, make decisions is known as cognitive health. Poor vision and hearing, some medications, depression and sleep deprivation can also interfere with cognitive health.
We will not be discussing about brain diseases in this article.
There are several ways in which cognitive health changes with age – and not all for the worse!:
Memory and Its Changes in the Human Body With Age
Assessing memory changes is complicated because the ability to remember information has at least 5 sub-categories. However, these are the generally known implications of changes to memory:
- REMAINS STABLE – Ability to perform well learned procedures such as swimming, accounting and typing although more time may be needed to learn new procedures (procedural memory)
- SLOWER RECALL – Retaining information and memories previously acquired (long-term memory).
- DECLINES – Solving complex problems or taking complicated decisions (working memory). Takes longer or with increased difficulty.
- DECLINES – Recalling very recent events. There is a tendency to be a little more forgetful (where you placed your keys) (episodic memory).
- DECLINES – Remembering something they were supposed to do in the future (prospective memory).
Processing Speed and Its Changes In the Body With Age
This is how quickly the brain can process information and then provide a response. It relates to how quickly you can manage a mental task. Processing speed DECREASES with aging such that some older people may struggle with complex tasks that require substantial processing of information
Emotional Processing and Its Changes in the Body With Age
Relates to how emotions are processed and regulated, especially negative emotions
- INCREASES – Paying less attention to or withdrawing from negative situations.
- INCREASES – Paying more attention to positive things.
- INCREASES – Remembering positive things. Tend to be happier and quickly recover from negative emotions.
Attention and Its Changes In The Body With Age
Ability to concentrate and focus on a specific subject
- REMAINS STABLE – Ability to remain concentrated on something for an extended period of time (Sustained attention)
- DECLINES – The ability to focus on something specific despite the presence of other distracting and “irrelevant” information such as following a conversation despite being in a busy environment (Selective attention).
- DECLINES – Ability to manage multiple tasks or streams of information at the same time.such as reading a book while listening to music, driving while talking to someone.
Language Skills and Changes In The Body With Age
Deal with a variety of abilities related to understanding and producing both verbal and written language
- REMAINS STABLE – Vocabulary
- REMAINS STABLE – Comprehension of written language; may even improve
- DECLINES – Speech comprehension, especially if the older person has hearing difficulties
- DECLINES – Language production such as slower word recall, pausing in the middle of a sentence, and, spelling familiar words becomes difficult Examples include:
Executive Functioning and Changes in The Body With Age
These are the mental skills that are needed for activities related to planning, organizing, problem-solving, abstract thinking, mental flexibility, complex decision-making, and appropriate behavior. Generally DECLINES with age, especially after 70.
Intelligence – Fluid or Crystallized. How Does it Relate to Aging?
You will sometimes hear medical professionals refer to fluid or crystallized intelligence when discussing normal cognitive aging. What do they mean by this?
Fluid intelligence is the ability to quickly process information in reasoning to solve problems in unique and novel ways using new or unfamiliar information, It is at its peak in younger adults, and declines with aging. No wonder even little children are so computer savvy!
Crystallized intelligence on the other hand, refers to the ability to use cumulative knowledge acquired through past learning, skills or experience.
It generally increases and is well maintained into advanced age because of its direct link to experience and being familiar with the subject or situation and therefore is sometimes referred to as “wisdom”. This explains why older adults are able to perform better at mental tasks that require experience and knowledge than young people. Makes sense!
Changes In The Body With Age – How To Promote Your Cognitive Health
As people age, cognitive health is important for functional independence. It is a determinant of independent living, ability to manage finances, drive safely or take medications correctly.
For these reasons, older adults are encouraged to maintain cognitive health in the following ways as changes occur in their bodies:
- Regular daily physical activity
- Healthy diet – Green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, broccoli and collards are rich in brain-healthy nutrients like vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta carotene; Fatty fish; Berries; Walnuts, Tea and coffee (https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/foods-linked-to-better-brainpower)
- Staying mentally active
- Remaining social
- Managing cardiovascular risk factors under direction of your doctor
- Avoiding smoking and reducing alcohol consumption
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- H. Zuckerman (2018) What is Normal Cognitive Aging? https://www.brainfacts.org/thinking-sensing-and-behaving/aging/2018/what-is-normal-cognitive-aging-100418
- How memory and thinking ability change with age (2020) https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/how-memory-and-thinking-ability-change-with-age
- Aging. Changes to Expect (2016) https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/healthy-aging/in-depth/aging/art-20046070
- R. W. Besdine (2019) Merck Manuals https://www.merckmanuals.com/en-ca/home/older-people’s-health-issues/the-aging-body/overview-of-aging?query=overview of aging
- A. Wnuk (2019). The New “Normal” of Brain Aging https://www.brainfacts.org/thinking-sensing-and-behaving/aging/2019/the-new-normal-of-brain-aging-08081
- Healthy Aging (2020) University of California, San Francisco Weill institute for Neurosciences: Memory & Aging Center https://memory.ucsf.edu/symptoms/healthy-aging
- Cognitive Health & Older Adults (2017) https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/cognitive-health-and-older-adults
- C. N. Harada et al (2013) Normal Cognitive Aging https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24094294
- H. Nicols (2017) What happens to the brain as we age? Medical News Today https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319185#Normal-brain-aging
- Brain Basics: Know Your Brain (2020) https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Know-Your-Brain
- The Changing Brain (2020) https://brainhealth.nia.nih.gov/the-changing-brain
- Brain 101- National Geographic (2017) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRFXSjkpKWA
- Brain 101: An Overview of the Anatomy and Physiology of the Brain https://www.hydroassoc.org/brain-101-an-overview-of-the-anatomy-and-physiology-of-the-brain