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Some mental abilities increase as we age

May 30, 2009

According to a Wall Street Journal article, “The Upside of Aging,” our mental abilities keep growing as we age.

American culture celebrates youth and many human abilities that decline with age. But contrary to prevalent beliefs, some mental functions actually increase in some areas while decreasing in others.

The aging brain is subject to a dreary litany of changes. It shrinks, Swiss cheese-like holes grow, connections between neurons become sparser, blood flow and oxygen supply fall. That leads to trouble with short-term memory and rapidly switching attention, among other problems. And that’s in a healthy brain.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. An emerging body of research shows that a surprising array of mental functions hold up well into old age, while others actually get better. Vocabulary improves, as do other verbal abilities such as facility with synonyms and antonyms. Older brains are packed with more so-called …

Speed of response times and reflexes decrease, according to the Journal article. But wisdom–a previously unquantifiable set of abilities–increases, says new research.

That’s because we develop “action templates” for experiences that we can apply to similar experiences. Younger minds don’t have enough experiences to develop templates as seasoned as those of older people.

These templates may be the foundations of what we call wisdom.

Sharp Brains, a website devoted to mental improvement, notes:

In our “Exercising Our Brains” Classes, we typically explain how some areas typically improve as we age, such as self-regulation, emotional functioning and Wisdom (which means moving from Problem solving to Pattern recognition), whereas other typically decline: effortful problem-solving for novel situations, processing speed, memory, attention and mental imagery.

Of course, this runs against my own experience: I knew far more at age 16 than I’ll ever know again. I certainly knew more than anybody else then.

But maybe my memory is just slipping…and I’ve merely forgotten most of it?

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One comment

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