The brain as an organ in the body weighs about 3 pounds. It has roughly 1 trillion (1000 billion) nerve cells, called neurons. EACH of these cells has connections to 10,000 other neurons in the brain.
There are undeniable changes in brain structure and how the brain operates over time. Mental decline, however, is not a given. Processing speed slows down for sure. It takes more time to learn new things than when we were younger. We may be more easily distracted as we get older. And multi-tasking may not be an effective strategy.
Still able to grow and change
That said, the brain is remarkably versatile. Unless there is a brain disease, it has the ability to regenerate itself, even in old age. We never stop building new neurons. If we stimulate the brain to learn new things, it is remarkably compliant. We may not be as speedy, but age in and of itself does not make us any less smart or creative than we were in our younger years.
There are many components to mental activities. Below are a few that are especially important in aging.
There are over 70 conditions that contribute to memory problems. And age is certainly a “risk factor” for Alzheimer’s, stroke and other brain illnesses.
Alzheimer’s is the second most dreaded disease, second only to cancer.
But sometimes the worry about dementia can create its own problems. Mental health issues are very stigmatized in our society. They bring with them feelings of shame, not only for the patient, but sometimes even for family members.
Anxiety and shame about potential dementia can lead to depression, which in turn leads to isolation and low self-esteem.
Depression itself is one of those conditions that exhibits symptoms of fuzzy thinking and memory loss. Ironically, the fear of dementia can trigger dementia-like symptoms.
Forgetting serves a purpose It’s important to keep memory in perspective. This is not to deny the impact of a brain disease. But a little forgetting is not a terrible thing. It’s actually quite healthy in a normal brain.
Not all memories are worth saving, or retrieving!
Our brains continue to take in new data all the time.
There simply isn’t room to store all the details of all the things we have ever experienced over all the years.
It’s quite adaptive of the brain to jettison some facts or events in favor of keeping others that are much more critical to our survival.
The normal forgetfulness of aging
Forgetfulness is the inability to retrieve information we think we have committed to memory. Normal forgetfulness falls in two basic categories:
Can’t retrieve it quickly. It’s not that the fact or the recollection of an event is gone altogether. With the normal forgetfulness of aging, that stored item just isn’t as easy to find it as it used to be. The older brain quite simply has more to sort through than a younger brain. And the speed of the sorting is slower. Often a person will remember the “lost” word later in the conversation, or the next day, when the pressure is off.
Had it, but it wasn’t important enough to stick around. This is what is called short term or working memory. And it definitely gets shorter and less reliable as we age. It’s what causes us to forget what we went into the bedroom to retrieve. Or why we have to write down a phone number, or look twice as we key it in. Our personal RAM simply isn’t what it used to be. Inconvenient, yes. Frustrating, sometimes. A sign of a larger problem. No.
What memories stay the same or improve? There are many different types of memory. While short term memory declines with age, other types of memory stay the same. Barring a brain disease, these types of memory tend to be pretty stable over the years:
Memories of major emotional events. Those turning points in life where we suddenly realized things were quite different than we had thought. These can be happy strokes of joy or insight, like the day we get married, or the birth of a child. Or they can be sad or upsetting events (9/11, or the day President Kennedy was shot).
Skills that become second nature. Taking a shower, tying a shoe or riding a bike. We don’t even have to engage our conscious mind to do them much. We have a body memory of how to do them.
Accuracy improves. While memory recall is slower for older adults than for those who are younger, speed is not everything. It turns out that older adults are more cautious and focus on accuracy. As a rule, older adults remember facts more accurately than people of younger generations.
When memory loss is a problem There is no denying that brain conditions that impact memory are more common in our older years. They are not a “normal” part of aging. They are a sign of a brain disease.
But how to know when memory issues are simply normal aging vs. when to get checked?
Oddly, people who do have some form of dementia often don’t realize it. It’s their families who notice, especially at the middle stage.
Conversely, people who are worried about their memory stumbles often have no disease at all.
Signs that something more serious may be going on include
difficulty with a common task, for example cooking a meal.
trouble balancing the checkbook when it used to be easy.
not recognizing people you see regularly.
problems judging distance, even with glasses.
putting things away in odd places.
fairly sudden mood swings or personality changes.
changes in personal hygiene.
Of the 70 dementing conditions, some are treatable—depression for example—and some are not.
Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common;
Next is vascular dementia (from strokes);
and then Parkinson’s.
If you are concerned, get a full neurological workup. We can help you find the appropriate doctors and be sure you get all the tests needed to paint an accurate picture of your brain’s state of health. Give us a call at 315-447-3164.
What is intelligence? It’s not just book-learning or the ability to take tests. (Although, ironically, books and tests do tend to be the way we measure intelligence!)
A definition At its simplest, intelligence is the ability to perceive what is around us and process many different types of input. Based on what we notice, we then make decisions about what we want to do to achieve a desired goal.
Types of intelligence Intelligence can involve logic and language. Planning and problem-solving are also part of the intelligence equation. Then there are sensitivities like emotional awareness of others, the ability to recognize patterns. Even self-awareness is a part of intelligence. Howard Gardner, a professor of Education at Harvard, found IQ tests too limiting in what they measured. He proposed multiple types of intelligence:
Changes in mental processing As mentioned in the context of memory, the speed of our brains definitely slows down with age. It takes longer to learn new things.
In a normal, aging brain, reasoning and solving problems—especially if they require new skills or new information—take a hit on laboratory tests. So do hand-eye coordination and reaction time.
Attention span gets shorter as we age.
Concentration can become more difficult. It’s easier to get distracted and move our focus to something new. This may be part of the problem with short term memory. We drop what we were working on and replace it with a new item of interest.
Mental abilities that defy dementia With so much fear about Alzheimer’s and memory loss, people “forget” that there are different aspects to our mental capabilities. These mental skills remain, and sometimes get keener, even in the face of dementia:
Music and singing!
In this case, even people with advanced dementia, who are unable to talk much, can still sing along with a favorite song. And someone who was musically inclined in youth will retain that gift unless other non-mental diseases get in the way. (Arthritis, for instance)
Intuition or emotional perception.
If you have ever spent time with an older relative who has moderate dementia, you will recognize that they become very perceptive emotionally. While they may not follow words as much, they definitely track tone of voice. Adult children who adopt the view that they are “parenting their parent” quickly get called up short on that one. A parent will always be a parent. And people with dementia, unless it is quite advanced, know what disrespect sounds like. That skill does not go away.
What stays the same or improves?
Our vocabulary and general knowledge stays the same, or even expands as we get older. The physical skills we have learned and use regularly tend to stay the same. Absent a brain disease, it’s generally problems of arthritis that get in the way of performing well-practiced activities.
Comparing and contrasting stays the same. In fact, as we age, we have so much more to draw upon that we often rise to the overview. We notice similarities and draw associations more effectively than younger adults.
The joy of learning remains. Unless there is a brain disease, most people continue to enjoy learning. As long as the environment is safe and there’s no pressure, we get the same delight in a new perspective or hearing a new story that we experienced as younger adults. Plus, we even enjoy revisiting old stories. Our thinking deepens and we see the value in reflection, even on the familiar.
The pros and cons of habits
Habits are handy.
They allow us to do things by rote. We don’t have to take up precious energy focusing on the mundane. Over time, we have learned what we like. And we know the easiest way to achieve it. We are not challenged much and we don’t feel stupid if we do the same things the same way. Very efficient!
Change is stressful.
It takes us out of our comfort zone. Change may actually signal a threat. And at the least it can threaten our confidence in our abilities. We know we can cope with the tried and true. We may or may not have the resources or confidence to effectively address a new situation.
But challenge is how the mind grows and renews itself.
If we force it down new pathways, it expands. Many people find travel stimulating for this very reason. It brings in new sites, sounds tastes and smells. Travel also forces us to do our normal routines in different ways.
We don’t have to travel to break up our routines, however. Walk or drive on a different route now and then. Prepare a new meal. Mix up your daily grooming pattern.
Remember, intelligence is the ability to take in information and process it to reach a desired end. Things are always changing as we age, so staying nimble in the face of change—thinking creatively—is to your benefit. Challenging your brain to look at the same activities in new ways is a great technique for keeping your mind sharp. And creative thinking does not decline with age.
There are many definitions of creativity. Loosely it can be defined as the ability to solve a problem by taking insights from one situation and applying it to another. Artists may do this with a design or aesthetic problem.
Frank Lloyd Wright, for instance, had the problem of how to provide lots of wall space for hanging and viewing art in the Guggenheim Museum. He did not want a building made up of small rectangular rooms. As an answer to that challenge, he designed the now famous spiral building in New York City. He was 80 when he designed this masterpiece.
Creativity does not expire Creative thinking is a component of intelligence that does not diminish in the aging brain! There is no expiration date on creativity.
In fact, older adults have so many more experiences to draw from, they have an advantage. With such a superb inventory, they can bring thinking or strategies from one context and apply it to another.
Famous older artists
Verdi was 72 when he composed Otello and 76 when he wrote Falstaff.
Picasso painted up until he died at 92.
Bach, Stravinsky, Beethoven and Monteverdi also composed with innovation, right up to the year of their passing.
And physical handicaps do not need to get in the way.
The Spanish painter, Goya, was very productive in his 60’s and 70’s, despite deafness and needing two pairs of glasses to see.
Georgia O’Keefe did not let failing eyesight get in her way either. She painted well into her late 90’s.
Creativity is not just for artists We don’t have to be artists or musicians to exhibit creativity. Our everyday lives provide numerous opportunities for creatively addressing problems.
Creative thinking in daily life
Dr. Mark Williams, author of The Art and Science of Aging Well, tells the story of an older couple in New York. They took the subway late one winter afternoon to get to their son’s apartment for dinner. As they emerged from underground, they realized that the snow was coming down too hard. They would not be able to walk to their son’s apartment. No one was home just yet. And all the taxis were full already with commuters. The gentleman in the couple spied a pizza parlor that advertised “home delivery.” They went to the restaurant and ordered a pizza to go. When the cashier asked for the address to deliver the pizza, the man asked to ride with the delivery person to their son’s house. They arrived warmly and safely and with dinner in tow. That is creative thinking!
I work for NBT Bank and Becky has worked with one of our clients for many years now. Her and her team go above and beyond the call of duty everyday to help her clients achieve the best quality of life possible. From coordinating doctor appointments, cleaning and repair services, making emergency visits, and assisting with many various tasks that have come up in the past several years. The team members truly take an interest in their clients lives and build a true relationship with them which makes such a positive impact. The exemplary and dependable service Inspire Care provides has greatly improved the quality of life of our mutual client and I'm sure of many others as well.The opinions and advice offered within this account are my own and do not reflect that of my employer NBT Bancorp or any of its primary business units.
Completing the Life Plan by Inspire Care has given me and my spouse peace of mind. The content is well organized and thorough. They've thought of everything! There is even the option of completing the Life Plan in a digital version. The "Plan" is divided up into user friendly and manageable sections including financial, medical, legal information and "end of life wishes." We now have all of our important information in one place. We also appreciated the in-person meetings (via zoom) that provided opportunities to share our progress, ask questions and receive lots of positive encouragement. Now completed, it will be easy to review and update. We highly recommend this program!!
Becky and her company was an answer to prayer for me and my family. My father and father-in-law both ended up in assisted living before they died.Becky not only helped us find the correct facilty but she helped our extended family and both Dads navigate some very difficult transitions.I would recommend her company to anyone who is caring for a senior. There is a lot to learn ,alot of trials and a lot of emotion during this stage of life-You don't have to do it alone!
I recently had to go through the incredible difficulty of sorting out my aging Mother's complicated financial picture as her power of attorney. I decided then, that I also had to find a much better solution for organizing the complexities of my own life plan. I needed to do this not only for my wife, if she survived me, but for our children in the event of our passing together. We were blessed to come upon the "Life Plan" program by Inspire Care of Central New York. The plan book and online program offered us the perfect solution for our situation. We completed the plan together and now feel extremely comfortable that we have all the pieces of our finances and life wishes in place. This program is a must have for anyone interested in finding simple, organizational solutions for their life plan!
My name is Matthew Steenberg. My family had the opportunity to acquire Inspire Care of CNY to coordinate all of our father's medical needs! Reflecting back over the course of time with our dad, and the relationship he/we had with the company, it was priceless! The personal care for our father was incredible! Visitations by the Therapists, by Rebecca, were always valued and productive. The advice for addtional support and followup discussions regarding our dads care were exemplary! And,I might add that Inspire Care was always available 24/7 for any questions or emergencies that needed attention! The company also worked extremely hard to establish relationships with all of the persons who would be with our father during his daylight and nighttime hours. Custodial staff, nurses, facility directors, anyone associated with our dad's care were connected. Inspire Care created a team around our dad. The experience was very impressive! Additionally, the mentoring that they offer the caregivers was very insightful and so comforting. Inspire Care not only cared for our father, but also very importantly cared for us! Care for all in the world of meeting the needs of our aging lov ed ones! In perspective, we don't know what we would have done without the professional loving care they provided to all of us in the family. It is without hesitation that we highly recommend Inspire Care of CNY to anyone or family that is seeking five star management and expertise in the care of their loved ones!
Becky and Inspire care has been an absolute blessing with our Mother who is suffering from dementia. Not only the in home care provided but the guidance given helped us to navigate the process to move her to into a long term care facility where she is now thriving. We absolutely could not have done this without the care, help, and guidance from Inspire.
Provided an immediate, and long term, in-home care solution for our beloved relative—and eventually spearheaded the skilled nursing facility admission process. Provided highly professional and compassionate service and advice from start to finish.
Inspire Care was so wonderful to work with in my mother's final years. Becky was with us from the early days when we were looking for someone to share a few meals and leave a few in the fridge for our Mom who lived alone but was showing early signs of dementia, through a broken hip and eventual 24x7 care.Having an experienced team in Inspire Care to help us navigate was SO helpful during stressful times. They helped us find and work with agencies and businesses that we would have struggled to navigate without their experienced guidance.
We have cultivated such a wonderful partnership with Inspire Care. Becky, is extremely thorough with much attention to detail thatperhaps one thought wouldn't matter. The Inspire care Team leads with such professionalism and have such compassion for their clients. We value & embrace the partnership we have created the entire team .
I have known Becky Auyer and Inspire Care for over 10 years. I have recommended her to many friends and families.About 7 years ago, I hired her to help me with my parents. (I recall thinking I was a super hero, and I could do this well all by myself!)Early on, she helped me to navigate both of my parents getting off the road. That was a tremendous hurdle for our family and much needed for everyones safety.She helped us in the house with safety measures, meds, doctor appointments and check ins when I was away on travel.In 2017, my parents moved to senior apartment living. She helped us with that process, as well as helping us with mobility issues that both parents now had.Over the last 5 years, with COVID, my mother suffering numerous falls, rehab, and several hospitalization, Becky and her staff were always a phone call away. Becky, Gwen, Sharon, Deborah and Cheryl, all pitched in with daily treatments, showers, physical therapy, and sometimes taking turns at the hospital. This gave me so much comfort knowing they could help me in so many ways.During the 1st 6 months of 2022, both of my parents died at home with hospice, family, and the Inspire Care team helping us every step of the way.In a lot of ways, these last 12 years was the toughest job I ever had. I don't regret it, but I know I couldn't have done as well as I did without Inspire Care by my side until the end.
Inspire Care of CNY cared for both of my aging parents in the final stages of their lives. Becky and her team were FANTASTIC. We faced many challenges--moving my parents out of their house and into a retirement community, and then confronting various issues as their health failed. I don't know how we would have survived that phase of life without their patient, kind, and knowledgeable support. The support was for my parents, but also for us, their adult children. I wish I could give more than five stars!