As we get beyond retirement age, most of us will not be as mentallysharp as we once were. But a researcher at the University of Albertasays most people have the ability to reverse the mental declines thatcome with aging.
"Can we reverse mental declines? Well, for most of us, the answer isyes, and I think that is definitely exciting and encouraging news,"said Dr. Dennis Foth, a professor in the University of Alberta Facultyof Extension and the academic director of the U of A's Certificate inAdult and Continuing Education.
Foth and his research colleague, Dr. Gordon Thompson of the Universityof Saskatchewan, also found in their literature review that mentaldeclines related to aging are not universal (they affect some more thanothers), and they are not pervasive (the declines normally affectdifferent parts of our cognitive capacities to varying degrees).
Foth said mental declines are pathological for about 10 per cent of thegeneral population over the age of 65, and not much can be done at thistime to overcome the debilitating cognitive effects of diseases thataffect the brain, such as Alzheimer's disease. But for the other 90 percent of the population, cognitive decline need not be inevitable.
"A lifetime of good mental habits pays off," Foth said. "People who arecurious at a young age are more likely to be mentally active and stayactive as they age. And we found it is never too late to start. With alittle effort, even people in their 70s and 80s can see dramaticimprovements in their cognitive skills."
There are many different types of classes and mental exercises thatpeople can do to keep their minds vibrant, Foth said, but the trick togetting more people to maintain or even improve their cognitiveabilities is "ecological validity".
Ecologically valid activities are those that people do on regular basisas part of their daily lives, said Foth, whose paper with Thompson ispublished this month in Educational Gerontology.
Examples of "ecologically valid" activities that can improve mentalcapacity include reading, traveling, memorizing poetry, playing cardgames, doing crossword puzzles, learning how to play a musicalinstrument, taking continuing education courses and surfing the Web.
Foth and his colleagues are beginning to study these activities todetermine which ones improve which cognitive skills. He believes thisresearch can lead to the development of learning programs andactivities that can isolate mental declines and reverse them. He addedthat attitude can play an important role in maintaining cognitiveskills throughout life.
"People often describe their memory skills as being far worse than theyactually are, and this type of attitude can start a vicious cycle,"Foth said. "These people won't enroll in a class that might bebeneficial to them because they believe they wouldn't be good at it. Wehave to protect against that."
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