Aging: Cognitive changes
Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
Cognitive changes refer to those changes that occur in overall mental functions and operations. Cognition encompasses all mental operations and functions, including attention, intelligence, memory, language and speech, perception, learning, concept formation, thought, problem solving, spatial and time orientation, and motor/behavior control. Psychologists have worked hard to define and measure various areas of cognitive functioning, even though there has been no consensus about these areas. Understanding the progression of cognitive functioning requires an understanding of brain structure and those human functions emanating from the brain and its fullest human potential, the mind. There is considerable debate within the scientific community about what type of cognitive functions actually exist as well as the nature of the mental mechanisms that are necessary to understand cognitive functioning.
There is a common belief that cognitive abilities decline markedly in older individuals. More and more, however, this idea is being shown to be exaggerated. Studies have shown that the diminution of cognitive skills with age may not be significant, especially before the age of about seventy-five. Aging has been found to have different effects on long-term and short-term memory processes. The capacity of short-term memory (which is quite limited in all age groups) remains essentially the same for older people. Long-term memory, however,...
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Information Processing and Memory (Psychology and Mental Health)
Information processing is a view of cognitive development that is based on the premise that complex cognitive skills develop as the product of the integration of a hierarchy of more basic skills obtained through life experience and learning. According to this view, fundamental skills are mastered and form the foundation for more and more complex skills.
Information-processing theories emerged as psychologists began to draw comparisons between the way computers operate and the way humans use logic and rules about the world as they develop. Humans use these rules for processing information. New rules may be added and old rules modified throughout childhood and adulthood as more information is obtained from interactions with the world and life experiences. The cognitive changes that occur throughout adult life, as more useful and accurate rules are learned, are every bit as important as the cognitive advances that occurred during childhood, as long as the basic rules acquired in childhood were not distorted by aberrant experiences. Each advance refines the ability to process information. Elizabeth F. Loftus points out that the terms “cognition” and “information processing” have supplanted the term “thinking” among contemporary cognitive scientists. Similar efforts have been made to redefine other human abilities such as problem solving (by Herbert Simon) and intelligence (by Robert Sternberg) to...
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Information Processing in the Elderly (Psychology and Mental Health)
Learning, memory, and attention are all aspects of cognition. Learning is the acquisition of information, skills, and knowledge measured by improvement in responses. Memory involves retaining and retrieving information for later use. Attention is the mechanism by which individuals process information. Cognition is how sensory input is transformed, stored, and retrieved from memory.
Major stages of information-processing models of learning and memory include registration (input), storage (retention), and retrieval (processing of input for response). Attention is a major component of registration in that focusing on stimuli and processing of information begin at this stage. Environmental influences, age-related sensoriperceptual changes, and pacing of instruction affect the processing of information.
Environmental influences can produce negative responses from the elderly because older adults are less comfortable in unfamiliar settings, with unfamiliar people, and have difficulty performing multiple tasks. Additionally, the ability to block out extraneous information and to focus on multiple instructions decreases with age.
Sensoriperceptual changes include age-related vision deficits such as altered color perception as a result of yellowing of the eye lens, difficulty seeing at various distances as a result of presbyopia, difficulty adjusting from light to dark, and decreased peripheral...
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In examining cognitive changes in aging populations, aside from the theoretical debates, researchers have reported that cognitive processes progressively decline as chronological age advances. Studies have tended to describe the cognitive declines as gradual and general, rather than being attributable to discrete cognitive losses in specific areas of functioning.
Several studies have supported the existence of age-related cognitive decline, while other studies dispute the severity of such declines. Research interest is increasing in the areas of identifying factors related to cognitive decline and interventions to abate them. Under the direction of Ronald C. Petersen and Michael Grundman, the National Institute on Aging is studying whether daily doses of vitamin E or donepezil can prevent those with mild cognitive impairment from developing Alzheimer’s disease. Vitamin E is also being researched in conjunction with B vitamins. A 2005 study found that healthy people who consumed more than 400 micrograms of the B vitamin folate (the recommended daily amount for adults) cut their risk of developing Alzheimer’s in half. Gingko biloba, the so-called memory herb, appears to help slow cognitive decline for some people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Research studies making this claim have been criticized, however, and further studies are necessary. Other studies are investigating cholinesterase inhibitors...
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Mild Cognitive Impairment (Psychology and Mental Health)
Studies of cognitive changes across the life span must distinguish between normal gradual change in the elderly and change that is associated with disordered functioning. Studies must also respect the complexity of the human brain. Morton Hunt notes that cognitive scientists have concluded that there may be 100 billion neurons in the interior of the brain. Each of these neurons may be interconnected to hundreds of others by anywhere from one thousand to ten thousand synapses, or relay points. This may enable the average healthy person to accumulate five hundred times as much information as is contained in the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, or 100 trillion bits of information. The circuitry in one human brain is probably sixty times the complexity of the entire United States telephone system. Given this complexity, even the daily estimated loss of 100,000 brain cells from the aging process may leave human beings capable of sound cognitive functioning well into old age.
The most frequent cognitive complaint made by and about the elderly is loss of memory, especially short-term memory. Researchers are finding that staying active and engaged in a challenging activity requiring mental concentration such as learning a new language, taking music lessons, doing crossword puzzles, playing games such as chess, or even reading a book may help to combat or slow the onset of dementia and keep the mind alert. Not...
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Bahrick, H. P. “A Speedy Recovery from Bankruptcy for Ecological Memory Research.” American Psychologist 46, no. 1 (1991): 76-77. This article addresses the controversy between those who favor naturalistic memory studies and those who favor strict experimental studies; Bahrick favors the naturalistic approach.
Banaji, Mahzarin R., and Robert G. Crowder. “The Bankruptcy of Everyday Memory.” American Psychologist 44, no. 9 (1989): 1185-1193. This article addresses the controversy between naturalistic and experimental research; the authors favor more controlled experimental approaches.
Ceci, S. J., and Urie Bronfenbrenner. “On the Demise of Everyday Memory.” American Psychologist 46, no. 1 (1991): 27-31. Addresses the naturalistic versus experimental memory study issue, offering a balanced perspective and inviting scientific inquiry regardless of the type of methodology.
Craik, Fergus I. M., and Timothy Salthouse, eds. The Handbook of Aging and Cognition. 3d ed. New York: Psychology Press, 2007. A collection of essays on all aspects of the aging brain.
Lear, Martha Weinman. Where Did I Leave My Glasses? The What, When, and Why of “Normal” Memory Loss. New York: Wellness Central, 2008. Interweaving medical findings with real-life anecdotes, this well-researched book is written with humor and clarity.
Loftus, Elizabeth F. Memory:...
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