In normal circumstances, the brain works as it should, giving commands for mental and physical activity, processing information, and generally keeping us in the groove. But as we age, its fallibility starts showing. Cracking that Sudoku puzzle is no longer as easy, solving a crossword looks like a chore, or even holding on to a friendly debate on M.S. Dhoni vs Virender Sehwag, as my 72-year-old neighbour shows, proves difficult.
Growing old can be more enjoyable than is generally made out to be if people retain the cognitive abilities of their prime. But as it happens, some loss of reasoning, perception, intuition, problem solving, et al (collectively called cognitive skills), is inevitable. Still, we come across older people who can beat the younger lot hands down in agility and alertness. In other words, not everyone’s cognitive function declines with age.
Active non-smokers age best
Last week the journal Neurology reported that elderly people who exercise at least once a week, have at least a high school education and ninth grade-level literacy, do not smoke and are socially active are likely to maintain their cognitive abilities through their 70s and 80s. If I can correlate this with what my neighbour M.N. Vitthal and many others are facing, the study provides a paradigm shift in focus—from the “sick” and “at-risk” to the successful “agers”.
Retired business executive Vitthal is physically active (or tries to be) and socializes well, whereas his wife, who is seven years younger, suffers from severe arthritis, which restricts her movements, and therefore socializes little. Staying with his youngest son, the old man goes about his life with ease but turns a worrywart when it comes to his wife. With her waning cognitive skills—loss of deductive reasoning in particular—he thinks his wife is losing her grip on her life.
Of course, this isn’t a generalization but it drives home the point authors Alexandra Fiocco and her colleagues from the University of California in San Francisco are trying to make in their paper—that there’s a subgroup among the older adults that shows no decline over the years. They are pinning down factors that predict whether one maintains cognitive function or not. Since these factors are modifiable and stem from behaviours that one can begin to engage in at any time, preventive programmes can be designed to prevent or delay cognitive decline in late life.
Education no bar?
“Although formal education is not modifiable, factors such as education and literacy level may be seen as a proxy for challenging your mind and continuously engaging in new and challenging tasks that engage and train various cognitive faculties,” Fiocco writes in an email.
However, there’s no black and white when it comes to greying. What is “successful” ageing anyway? Interesting question, say scientists, but there is no consensus on the definition yet. Lets hope when they eventually arrive at one, it is defined longitudinally—over time.
The present study may challenge some earlier findings which suggested that education is associated with the level of cognitive function, but not with the rate of its decline. Typically science, you would say—just like a pair of summer sandals, flip-flop. But that’s how science progresses—it’s constantly revised, challenged and refined.
To that effect, researchers at the Centre of Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences at Allahabad University say there are hardly any studies on cognition in older adults in India. They expect it to change in the next 10 years, though. In the meantime, if Sudoku looks easy, try Kakuro; if you tend to be alone, try joining a club; if you are an avid poetry reader, try reading on wildlife or comics; learn a new language. In short, challenge your imagination—make simple changes in your life.
The author is Mint’s deputy bureau chief in Bangalore.
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