Changes in the Body With Age. Mental Function

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.

Changes in the body with age

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRFXSjkpKWA

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 The 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.

Changes in the body with age

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).

Also, check out their listing of normal cognitive aging and other observations that must be referred to your doctor: https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/how-memory-and-thinking-ability-change-with-age

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 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 Magic cubewith 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?Wisdom

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

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 activeBerries
  • Remaining social
  • Managing cardiovascular risk factors under direction of your doctor
  • Avoiding smoking and reducing alcohol consumption

If you liked this article or have thoughts you would like to share, kindly engage by providing them in the Comment Box below.

Some References

  1. H. Zuckerman (2018) What is Normal Cognitive Aging? https://www.brainfacts.org/thinking-sensing-and-behaving/aging/2018/what-is-normal-cognitive-aging-100418
  2. 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
  3. Aging. Changes to Expect (2016) https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/healthy-aging/in-depth/aging/art-20046070
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. Healthy Aging (2020) University of California, San Francisco Weill institute for Neurosciences: Memory & Aging Center https://memory.ucsf.edu/symptoms/healthy-aging
  7. Cognitive Health & Older Adults (2017) https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/cognitive-health-and-older-adults
  8. C. N. Harada et al (2013) Normal Cognitive Aging https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24094294
  9. H. Nicols (2017) What happens to the brain as we age? Medical News Today https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319185#Normal-brain-aging
  10. Brain Basics: Know Your Brain (2020) https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Know-Your-Brain
  11. The Changing Brain (2020) https://brainhealth.nia.nih.gov/the-changing-brain
  12. Brain 101- National Geographic (2017) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRFXSjkpKWA
  13. 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 

24 thoughts on “Changes in the Body With Age. Mental Function”

  1. What a fascinating article related to brain function as we age. I was happy to see it’s not all doom and gloom and that some functions increase. I’m glad you gave some tips on how to maintain cognitive health., that’s really important. Thanks

    Reply
    • Hello Martine,

      Thanks for the read. I was equally happy to see that not everything actually declines. It does help if you have been engaged in mentally challenging activities for most of your adult life though.

      I am planning to research, in the near future, on some of the brain pills being peddled out there to see if scientifically they do anything. Stay tuned…

      Ceci

      Reply
  2. The brain is a fantastic organ just like they all are. Still, a mystery to the medical world, but they’re getting there.

    Food and lifestyle are so important and we all take this for granted and it would seem that only in our later years that we start to do something about it.

    So much we don’t know about the human body and beggars belief that other forces may have been in place.

    Great post and thanks for sharing

    Reply
    • Thanks for the read Mike. The entire body itself is fascinating and the medical world continues to discover new things each day. You are quite right that our lifestyle (and some genetics) will typically determine our quality of life as we age.

      Ceci

      Reply
  3. WOW WOW WOW! There is A LOT of great information on here! I think I need to start working my brain out like we have been taught to work our bodies out. Thank you so much for the facts!

    Reply
    • Hi Mommy.
      That is so cool about working our brains just like we work our bodies! Engaging in mentally challenging activities is really helpful.

      Thanks for the read and hope you’ll be back!

      Ceci

      Reply
  4. This is a fascinating article, especially since I have begun to go through some of these changes myself. I got a chuckle out of the emotional processing changes. I guess what I’ve been referring to as “done with peoples’ s**t” is just a normal change in my brain function. I can’t wait to tell my kids! 😉

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading the article Cynthia and I’m glad that you found value in it.

      It’s amazing how a little bit of information gives us a different perspective on normal changes in our bodies as we age with there being really “no cause for alarm”. Now….where did I leave my car keys?😉

      Reply
  5. This is a fascinating article! I especially paid attention when you mention emotional processing and more quickly getting over negative emotion. That is so me as I get older. Negative things tend to bother me less and less. I almost wonder if it’s to a fault at times. I almost fear being inappropriate as a result. There is good news there too, because I can just blame it on my age.

    Great article and the rest of your site is really interesting as well.

    Reply
    • Hello Teresa,
      Isn’t it amazing that as we grow older we literarily “mellow with age” as they say. I love it! I tell folks that my risk of popping an artery due to anger is greatly reduced.

      Thanks that you enjoyed your visit to the site. Hope you visit again soon as there are more interesting articles in the works.

      Ceci

      Reply
  6. Hi Ceci,

    Thanks for this informative article about the changes in mental functions when people age. It’s something that we cannot avoid in the long run. From your writing, I am glad that there are increases instead of all declines for mental functions, especially paying less to negative situations.

    For the ways to maintain normal mental function, I believe that exercising regularly and eating clean play the most important part. And, people might have to develop habits earlier than the senior ages for better health conditions.

    Thanks for sharing,
    Matt

    Reply
    • Absolutely Matt. You cannot wait until you enter the senior years to start trying to improve mental function. Having said that though, i am a firm believer that it is never too late to take control. Regular exercising and eating healthy augmented by appropriately recommended (by a doctor) supplements can be beneficial.

      Ceci

      Reply
  7. Great tips for promoting your cognitive health. I strive to get physical activity as much as possible and consume a good diet. The staying social part can be a challenge with my busy life, but I understand how important it is also. Thanks for this post it was very helpful and is such an important subject.

    Reply
    • Yes Robb, We all need to make the effort to stay social. Life can sometimes be a never ending rat race and we need to make time for what will give us the quality of life we desire in our senior years and beyond.

      Ceci

      Reply
  8. Fabulous article Ceci. This one is a storehouse of valuable information. I especially liked the part where you discussed Cognitive Health. You do write extremely well and provide great information.

    I wish your articles would reach more seniors as most seniors are not very computer savvy.
    Do think of way to overcome that difficulty.

    Aparna

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comments. I am planning to set up a Seniors Facebook group over the next month, so be sure to get your Dad and other seniors you know to join. I will announce this information on my websites.

      Ceci

      Reply
  9. Hey Cecil,

    This is a very interesting article.

    It’s nice to know what to expect as we get older!

    I like the part about emotional intelligence becoming more stable.

    Thanks for putting This together.

    Michael

    Reply
  10. This is really interesting. I heard someone say once that we age only because we expect to age, and while I think that is maybe not quite true, there is some truth in it.

    I believe that we get what we expect in life so if we expect to put on weight, to slow down, to forget things then we have impressed this on our subconscious mind which likes to obey our instructions swiftly! If, on the other hand, we tell ourselves that our memory is getting better every day and that we are creative and have brilliant ideas all the time it will also be true (can you tell I have just got into saying affirmations lol – it’s working!).

    I have decided to live a full and vibrant life until at least 110 years so look forward to reading more of your excellent content.

    Kind regards,

    Jean

    Reply
    • I love your positive affirmations Jean. They work – unfortunately not so much on the physiological aspects of aging over which your mind has no control! Ha!Ha!Ha! Aging is a natural process, and will happen whether you like it or not. However you can choose how to react to the changes. Having a high level of positivity creates a sense of well being in the body which can delay some of the effects of aging.

      Reply
  11. What a fantastic article, thank you so much for sharing this with us. I always believed it was important to stay healthy by regular exercise but I never put much thought into the mind until just a few years ago. I started to read more and take on complicated tasks like programming a small microcontroller. Since then I have noticed my mind has become more active and wanting to do more things with it. No longer do we just sit around a watch the TV because it does nothing to help in keeping the mind healthy. And now after reading your article I am even more convinced that it’s vital for anyone as they age to keep their body and mind active. I will be sharing your article because this is gold.

    Reply

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