Can we reverse the mental
that comes with aging? Yes
As we get beyond retirement age,
most of us will not be as mentally sharp as we once were. But a
researcher at the University of Alberta says most people have the
ability to reverse the mental declines that come with aging.
"Can we reverse mental declines? Well, for most of us, the answer is
yes, and I think that is definitely exciting and encouraging news,"
said Dr. Dennis Foth, a professor in the University of Alberta
Faculty of Extension and the academic director of the U of A's
Certificate in Adult and Continuing Education.
Foth and his research colleague, Dr. Gordon Thompson of the
University of Saskatchewan, also found in their literature review
that mental declines related to aging are not universal (they affect
some more than others), and they are not pervasive (the declines
normally affect different parts of our cognitive capacities to
Foth said mental declines are pathological for about 10 per cent of
the general population over the age of 65, and not much can be done
at this time to overcome the debilitating cognitive effects of
diseases that affect the brain, such as Alzheimer's disease. But for
the other 90 per cent of the population, cognitive decline need not
"A lifetime of good mental habits pays off," Foth said. "People who
are curious at a young age are more likely to be mentally active and
stay active as they age. And we found it is never too late to start.
With a little effort, even people in their 70s and 80s can see
dramatic improvements in their cognitive skills."
There are many different types of classes and mental exercises that
people can do to keep their minds vibrant, Foth said, but the trick
to getting more people to maintain or even improve their cognitive
abilities is "ecological validity".
Ecologically valid activities are those that people do on regular
basis as part of their daily lives, said Foth, whose paper with
Thompson is published this month in Educational Gerontology.
Examples of "ecologically valid" activities that can improve mental
capacity include reading, traveling, memorizing poetry, playing card
games, doing crossword puzzles, learning how to play a musical
instrument, taking continuing education courses and surfing the Web.
Foth and his colleagues are beginning to study these activities to
determine which ones improve which cognitive skills. He believes
this research can lead to the development of learning programs and
activities that can isolate mental declines and reverse them. He
added that attitude can play an important role in maintaining
cognitive skills throughout life.
"People often describe their memory skills as being far worse than
they actually are, and this type of attitude can start a vicious
cycle," Foth said. "These people won't enroll in a class that might
be beneficial to them because they believe they wouldn't be good at
it. We have to protect against that."