Gill: Mental alertness, memory decline

Posted 10/10/22

A major fear as we age is mental, cognitive and memory decline.

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Gill: Mental alertness, memory decline


A major fear as we age is mental, cognitive and memory decline.

We are complex with a wide array of individual differences, and according to David Leviton (a neuroscientist) the causes of mental decline are “difficult to identify.” Medical science does not yet appear to understand how to remedy this problem. For example, although theories abound there is still not a full or clear understanding as to why some seniors suffer from memory or cognitive impairment while others do not.

It is difficult to predict the course of the disease once the condition is diagnosed. Still, most of us can and should master the art of aging. With aging, cognitive abilities on average may decline. Yet an optimistic outlook leads to favorable cognitive and mental health outcomes relative to one’s age. Conscientiousness and openness to transitions as we age are necessary personality traits that contribute to aging well. Most important of all, living with a purpose is an essential antidote to the fears associated with possible cognitive decline as we age.

Rejuvenating one’s brain as we age means paying strict attention, being prepared and organized, and noting and observing mental lapses. There are experts being trained in “The New Longevity,” which, of course, is the science of living longer while maintaining memory functions along with mental alertness. They have come a long way from Groucho Marx’s observation that “Anyone can become old. You just have to live long enough.”

Consider that as we age, we may process information more slowly. But assuming good health and a positive outlook, we are likely to display better decision-making than younger age groups based on our extensive life experiences. We must commit to an engagement with life, nurturance of social and family connections and a willingness to learn new things and initiate new projects. 

Mindfulness includes a powerful meditative or contemplative practice to reduce anxiety, frustration, and hopelessness and enhance spiritual and psychological well-being. It can be practiced to enhance mental and memory functioning at any point in time for everyone, including Seniors. High levels of depression, complex trauma and chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, can be factors leading to dementia. Mental cognitive impairment is a less severe form of cognitive and mental decline between cognitive decline as we age. Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning that interferes with daily living.

Even though dementia can become more common as we age, according to experts it is not considered to be part of normal aging. Warning signs may include confusion, repetitive verbalizations, serious forgetfulness, atypical agitated states, reduced self-care, disorientation, loss of pleasure in the usual activities and problems in the recognition of close friends and relatives. 

Experts from the National Institute of Mental Health said that you should not worry so much about misplacing your keys or glasses. But be concerned if you or a family member no longer knows what the keys are used for. Despite this clarification, I believe we should begin to pay attention to increased forgetfulness, word-finding problems and mental fatigue as we age. If we experience such lapses, I recommend reflection and rehearsal of the event and keeping a journal to maintain a conscious intention and a perspective of what you are experiencing. Maintain yourself as youthful and optimistic. Spend time with people of all ages. Appreciate your cognitive strengths by learning and doing new things, such as traveling and pursuing new interests. Keep your social circle fresh exciting and new. Look ahead without dwelling on the past.

For many, there is a shift, a transition as we age. We must put aside a lifestyle that leads to boredom and isolation. The solutions are found with a sensible diet and exercise program, in pursuing and maintaining our social connections, staying physically active, planning new activities, ensuring a sound pattern of sleep, and finding and/or pursuing a direction in life.

Most of our ancestors have not lived for as long as we are now living. For thousands of years prior to the 20th century, most people died between the ages of 25 and 35. Many of us are now living into our 80s or 90s and as we do so seniors may develop diseases, such as dementia, in numbers not previously seen. A healthy lifestyle can certainly help to improve the lives of many seniors as they age. Many seniors have an opportunity to create a new spirit by redefining retirement, extending the quality of their lives and rediscovering who they truly are without becoming sidelined with fear and trepidation.     

Our task is that while we can, we must address our fear regarding the prospect of cognitive decline and commit to living with joy and with engagement. 

According to Jordan Peterson, the noted psychologist, “we must face the demands of life voluntarily by responding to a challenge instead of bracing for a catastrophe.” Of course, this axiom applies to our fear of losing our cognitive and mental capacities. Consider the Jewish toast “L’Chaim,” which is an invitation “to life” or to live life to its fullest. If we or a loved one are suffering from memory or cognitive loss, look for support from family, friends, and community and affirm life as best we can. 

As I have said in past commentaries, look for role models to inspire you. Consider Linda Ronstadt, who can no longer sing in her 70s due to a neurological condition and has now finished writing a book and completed a documentary.  Jimmy Carter just celebrated his 98th birthday and is the oldest living U.S. president ever.  

There is meaning to be found in exercising personal responsibility where character counts over circumstance. Commit to being optimistic and resilient for as long as you can regarding your fear of memory loss. Such a commitment will likely yield positive outcomes as you age.