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So, What Was I Looking for? Normal Cognitive Aging

So, What Was I Looking for? Normal Cognitive Aging
By Catherine Johnson, PsyD, LP

We can relate to instances when we have forgotten where we parked the car, have misplaced our keys, or even possibly, have called one of our children by his or her sibling’s name. We joke with others about this forgetfulness as a way to validate that our aging is normal and to accept the changes in our lives. Yet we may often wonder, “Is what I am experiencing a normal part of aging?” Knowing what is considered normal aging can help put our minds at ease.

Around age 50, it is normal to be a little more forgetful. As we age, our brains shrink, and we lose brain (neuron) cells and the connections between them. So what does a normal, “a little more forgetful” look like?

  • First, our ability to recall information may become more difficult. We may find it harder to instantly recall information such as a person’s name or when we scheduled an appointment.
  • Second, multitasking is more challenging and our brains are less tolerant of distractions. Remembering where we put our wallets or purses may become a bit harder if we were preoccupied or trying to multitask when we laid them down.
  • Third, it may take us a little longer to learn and retain new information or a new practice. If we are trying to learn something new or solve a new problem, we may find that we need more time to process the information and to feel confident that we understand it. This need is not because we are less intelligent but because the speed at which our brains process information has slowed down.

The brain may lose neuron cells and connections as we age, but strong evidence exists that this loss of cells in healthy individuals has few, if any, real world consequences. The brain has a much greater capacity than we require for the normal needs of our lifetimes, and new research indicates that we can create new connections if we strive to maintain our cognitive health by actively learning new information and participating in new activities.

While our processing speed may slow down, our overall mental performance continues to be effective well into our 80s and beyond. Our ability to focus, concentrate, and create are not diminished by age. We may actually be more creative in later life, as we combine a strong sense of self with the talents and skills we have developed over a life span of practice and experience.

Our capacity to use our rich vocabulary and to articulate our values and beliefs continues to grow. Often with age comes tolerance, genuineness, serenity, and wisdom. Crystallized intelligence— the knowledge and skills that accumulate over a lifetime—is at its peak in late life.

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