Home Health What you need to know about work and aging – brain health

What you need to know about work and aging – brain health

What you need to know about work and aging – brain health

Illustration by Brian Stauffer for Yahoo

In the upper echelons of politics, there is no shortage of men and women working well beyond the conventional retirement age.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who turns 90 next month, has said she will not seek re-election in 2024, but she will continue to serve as the oldest member of the U.S. Senate, despite a recent extended medical absence and questions about her mental acuity. In the 2024 presidential election, voters are likely to face a deadlock between President Biden, who turns 82 in November, and former President Trump, who turns 78.

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Experts have said that working into old age can be beneficial and improve longevity – but only if it’s a choice; being forced to do so for financial reasons has the opposite effect. Still, many Americans oppose older statesmen doing the decision-making, with 41% saying old age hurts members of Congress by making their jobs “more difficult” rather than helping them with “wisdom and experience,” according to a recent poll.

So what are the cognitive challenges of working as an older adult — and what can aging professionals bring to the table?

What happens to the brain as we age?

A doctor looks at a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) film showing a neurodegenerative disease in an aging patient. (Getty Images)

The National Institute on Aging says that as we age, not only do our bodies begin to look different, but so do physical changes in the brain. Certain parts of the brain begin to shrink, “particularly those areas that are important for learning and other complex mental activities”; communication between nerve cells in certain regions may not be as effective; there is more inflammation; and “blood flow in the brain may decrease.”

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These physical changes can also correlate with changes in mental function, but experts say there’s no set, universal shape when it comes to aging.

“I saw someone in my clinic yesterday who was 86, and she really looks like she’s in her late 60s or early 70s,” Dr. Sharon Sha, a clinical professor of neurology and chief of the Memory Disorders Division at Stanford University. Yahoo News. “I’ve met 90-year-olds who run ultramarathons, so their joints and their cardiovascular function and their brains don’t reflect that of a typical 90-year-old. So yes, brains can work very differently.”

Sha also notes that while some changes in mental function are to be expected, not all of us are destined to encounter dementia as we age.

According to a recent Columbia University study, nearly 10% of American adults age 65 and older have dementia, and another 22% have mild cognitive impairment. Cases of cognitive impairment increase with age, although they are still a minority; while 3% of people aged 65 to 69 have dementia, that number rises to 35% of people aged 90 and older.

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What are some challenges for working as an octogenarian?

Even for an otherwise healthy individual, some cognitive changes are to be expected. Sha said that for many people that means changes in the following:

  • Speed ​​of Processing: “As we age, the speed of thinking slows down.”

  • Working memory: “The amount of total information we can hold may decrease slightly, but not significantly.”

Decreased attention and the ability to multitask may also be affected.

“Our bodies aren’t what they once were,” David Myers, an 80-year-old professor at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, told Yahoo News. “The stairs have gotten steeper, the newsprint has become smaller, the voices of others have grown fainter, our sleep has become more interrupted. Our memories and reasoning are slower. We experience brain freezes more often when trying to figure out someone’s name or the next point we wanted to make.

What benefits can older workers bring?

Craftsman in boat building. (Getty Images)

Still, Myers said there are plenty of gifts and challenges to being a working octogenarian. As a social psychologist, Myers defies many of the conventional stereotypes associated with aging in the US; he recently published a book of essays on “curiosities and wonders of the human mind” – the last of 18 books he has written.

“There’s a temptation to lump octogenarians together when, in reality, their stamina and skills differ much more than, say, eight-year-olds,” Myers said. “At 80 years old, some are approaching death, while others remain energetic, purposeful, and quick-witted.”

He said there are a number of benefits to being an older working professional:

  • Crystallized Intelligence: “While we eighties don’t think as fast (our ‘fluid intelligence’ is declining), our ‘crystallized intelligence’ – our lifelong knowledge and ability to apply it – remains strong.”

  • Wisdom: “Older adults often benefit from a greater ability to see things in perspective, navigate conflict, and appreciate the limits of their own knowledge. It takes experience to know what you don’t know.”

  • Emotional Stability: “As teenagers and young adults, we were on an emotional rollercoaster. In later life, our feelings become milder. We better look beyond the moment. Compliments produce less elation, criticism less despair or irritation. So as we face the streamers and arrows of the day, we better look at the big picture.”

The National Institute on Aging says there may be some positive cognitive changes as well, with many studies showing that older adults “have a more extensive vocabulary and greater knowledge of the depth of word meaning than younger adults.”

How to keep your brain healthy and vibrant as you age

Women do yoga exercises in a park. (Getty Images)

While genes and family history can play a role in how well you age, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that “up to 40% of dementia cases can be prevented or delayed.”

A lot of brain health comes down to lifestyle choices, and Sha shared a few pieces of advice she usually gives her patients for better brain aging — with one tip ranking highest.

“Practice, practice, practice. Research studies really confirm how much aerobic exercise is important for brain health,” Sha said. “I think it’s important to get your heart rate up 30 minutes a day, if you can do that at a minimum.”

A heart-healthy Mediterranean diet — rich in plant foods such as seeds, vegetables, and whole grains and fish — can also do wonders for the brain.

While there are no specific “brain games” that offer a surefire way to improve brain health, cognitive stimulation also plays an important role.

In addition to daily exercise, Myers says it’s this “active engagement” that has helped him stay sharp into his 80s — “through reading and writing and interactions that keep my brain alive and growing, and my life still with purpose.”



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