Aging

Helping older adults remember whether they’ve done something

January, 2010

Older adults are more likely to forget that they've done something. A new study has found that doing something unusual (such as putting a hand on their head) at the same time helps seniors remember having done the task.

Previous research has shown that older adults are more likely to incorrectly repeat an action in situations where a prospective memory task has become habitual — for example, taking more medication because they’ve forgotten they’ve already taken it. A new study has found that doing something unusual at the same time helps seniors remember having done the task. In the study, older adults told to put a hand on their heads whenever they made a particular response, reduced the level of repetition errors to that of younger adults. It’s suggested that doing something unusual, like knocking on wood or patting yourself on the head, while taking a daily dose of medicine may be an effective strategy to help seniors remember whether they've already taken their daily medications.

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Older brains make good use of 'useless' information

January, 2010

A new study finds a decision-making advantage to the increased difficulty older brains have in filtering out irrelevant information.

It’s now well established that older brains tend to find it harder to filter out irrelevant information. But now a new study suggests that that isn’t all bad. The study compared the performance of 24 younger adults (17-29) and 24 older adults (60-73) on two memory tasks separated by a 10-minute break. In the first task, they were shown pictures overlapped by irrelevant words, told to ignore the words and concentrate on the pictures only, and to respond every time the same picture appeared twice in a row. The second task required them to remember how the pictures and words were paired together in the first task. The older adults showed a 30% advantage over younger adults in their memory for the preserved pairs. It’s suggested that older adults encode extraneous co-occurrences in the environment and transfer this knowledge to subsequent tasks, improving their ability to make decisions.

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[276] Campbell, K. L., Hasher L., & Thomas R. C.
(2010).  Hyper-binding: a unique age effect.
Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 21(3), 399 - 405.

Full text available at http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2010/01/15/0956797609359910.full

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The age you feel is more important for cognition than the age you are

February, 2010

More data from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States has revealed that cognitive abilities reflect to a greater extent how old you feel, not how old you actually are.

More data from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States has revealed that cognitive abilities reflect to a greater extent how old you feel, not how old you actually are. Of course that may be because cognitive ability contributes to a person’s wellness and energy. But it also may reflect benefits of trying to maintain a sense of youthfulness by keeping up with new trends and activities that feel invigorating.

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[171] Schafer, M. H., & Shippee T. P.
(2009).  Age Identity, Gender, and Perceptions of Decline: Does Feeling Older Lead to Pessimistic Dispositions About Cognitive Aging?.
The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. 65B(1), 91 - 96.

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Cognitive ability, not age, predicts risky decisions

July, 2010

A new study provides evidence that it's not age per se that affects the quality of decision-making, but individual differences in processing speed and memory.

A study involving 54 older adults (66-76) and 58 younger adults (18-35) challenges the idea that age itself causes people to become more risk-averse and to make poorer decisions. Analysis revealed that it is individual differences in processing speed and memory that affect decision quality, not age. The stereotype has arisen no doubt because more older people process slowly and have poorer memory. The finding points to the need to identify ways in which to present information that reduces the demand on memory or the need to process information very quickly, to enable those in need of such help (both young and old) to make the best choices. Self-knowledge also helps — recognizing if you need to take more time to make a decision.

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One cause of cognitive decline with age

July, 2010

The discovery that a particular type of dendritic spine is lost with age not only provides a target for therapy, but also emphasizes the importance of building skills and expertise when young.

A rhesus monkey study has revealed which dendritic spines are lost with age, providing a new target for therapies to help prevent age-association cognitive impairment. It appears that it is the thin, dynamic spines in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which are key to learning new things, establishing rules, and planning, that are lost. Learning of a new task was correlated with both synapse density and average spine size, but was most strongly predicted by the head volume of thin spines. There was no correlation with size or density of the large, mushroom-shaped spines, which were very stable across age and probably mediate long-term memories, enabling the retention of expertise and skills learned early in life. There was no correlation with any of these spine characteristics once the task was learned. The findings underscore the importance of building skills and broad expertise when young.

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Why older adults remember the good times better

March, 2010

An imaging study has found differences in brain activity that explain why older adults are better at remembering positive events.

An imaging study reveals why older adults are better at remembering positive events. The study, involving young adults (ages 19-31) and older adults (ages 61-80) being shown a series of photographs with positive and negative themes, found that while there was no difference in brain activity patterns between the age groups for the negative photos, there were age differences for the positive photos. In older adult brains, but not the younger, two emotion-processing regions (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala) strongly influenced the memory-encoding hippocampus.

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The secret of sharp memory in old age

March, 2010

Examination of the brains from 9 “super-aged” — people over 80 whose memory performance was at the level of 50-year-olds — has found that some of them had almost no tau tangles. Are they genetically protected, or reaping the benefits of a preventive lifestyle?

Examination of the brains from 9 “super-aged” — people over 80 whose memory performance was at the level of 50-year-olds — has found that some of them had almost no tau tangles. The accumulation of tau tangles has been thought to be a natural part of the aging process; an excess of them is linked to Alzheimer’s disease. The next step is to work out why some people are immune to tangle formation, while others appear immune to the effects. Perhaps the first group is genetically protected, while the others are reaping the benefits of a preventive lifestyle.

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The findings were presented March 23 at the 239th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

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Personality may influence brain shrinkage in aging

March, 2010

An imaging study involving 79 volunteers aged 44 to 88 has found more brain atrophy and faster rates of decline in brain regions particularly affected by aging, among those ranked high in neuroticism traits.

An imaging study involving 79 volunteers aged 44 to 88 has found lower volumes of gray matter and faster rates of decline in the frontal and medial temporal lobes of those who ranked high in neuroticism traits, compared with those who ranked high in conscientious traits. These are brain regions particularly affected by aging. The idea that this might occur derived from the well-established effects of chronic stress on the brain. This is the first study to investigate whether the rate and extent of cognitive decline with age is influenced by personality variables. Extraversion, also investigated, had no effect. The study does not, however, rule out the possibility that it is reduction in brain tissue in these areas that is affecting personality. There is increasing evidence that people tend to become more neurotic and less conscientious in early-stage Alzheimer's.

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[174] Jackson, J., Balota D. A., & Head D.
(Submitted).  Exploring the relationship between personality and regional brain volume in healthy aging.
Neurobiology of Aging. In Press, Corrected Proof,

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Memory decline linked to an inability to ignore distractions

March, 2010

A new study provides more support for the idea that cognitive decline in older adults is a product of a growing inability to ignore distractions, and that forewarning doesn't help.

A new study provides more support for the idea that cognitive decline in older adults is a product of a growing inability to ignore distractions. Moreover, the study, involving 21 older adults (60-80) shown random sequences of pictures containing faces and scenes and asked to remember only the scene or the face, reveals that being given forewarning about which specific pictures would be relevant (say the second, or the fourth) did not help. The findings suggest that the failure to suppress irrelevant information is not due to a failure in quickly assessing what is relevant, but is a related to mechanisms that occur early in the visual processing stream.

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Gene variant may protect memory and thinking skills in older people

April, 2010

The role of the dopamine-regulating COMT gene in cognitive function has been the subject of debate. Now a large study of older adults has revealed that the Met variant of the COMT gene was linked to a greater decline in cognitive function. This effect was more pronounced for African-Americans.

The role of the catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) gene in cognitive function has been the subject of some debate. The gene, which affects dopamine, comes in two flavors: Val and Met. One recent study found no difference between healthy carriers of these two gene variants in terms of cognitive performance, but did find differences in terms of neural activity. Another found that, although the gene did not affect Alzheimer’s risk in its own, it acted synergistically with the Alzheimer’s gene variant to do so. Now an eight-year study of nearly 3000 adults in their 70s has revealed that the Met variant of the COMT gene was linked to a greater decline in cognitive function. This effect was more pronounced for African-Americans. This is interesting because it has been the Val genotype that in other research has been shown to have a detrimental effect. It seems likely that this genotype must be considered in its context (age, race, gender, and ApoE status have all been implicated in research).

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