Analysis Essay

Good news about the ageing brain

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d6288 (Published 17 October 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6288
  1. Marcus Richards, programme leader1,
  2. Stephani L Hatch, lecturer in social epidemiology2
  1. 1MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing, London WC1B 5JU, UK
  2. 2Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London
  1. Correspondence to: M Richards m.richards{at}nshd.mrc.ac.uk

Important cognitive skills decline with age, but we retain a considerable mental richness in later life, say Marcus Richards and Stephani Hatch

In 1968 Robert Butler, a gerontologist and the first director of the US National Institute on Aging coined the term “ageism,” highlighting negative stereotypes in later life that emphasise loss and limitation. Subsequently, US president George Bush’s declaration of the 1990s as the “decade of the brain” increased public awareness of Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps an unintended consequence of these developments is that cognitive decline and dementia have become, for many of us, the most feared aspects of old age. Little wonder that when our ageing minds wander, when we forget a name or the reason we went upstairs, we sometimes worry that these are warnings of a more sinister process. We should guard against the opposite tendency, the shallow false positivity that ageing is just an attitude of mind; this denies the reality that cognitive decline can impair everyday function and quality of life and may indeed be an early sign of dementia for some. Yet despite the myth that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,”1 people continue to learn over the life course and continue to develop a rich set of cognitive skills. This is important given the substantial increases in life expectancy in recent years, the pace of which is expected to quicken around the world.2

Cognitive ageing is not all bad

First we must acknowledge that cognitive ageing is not a simple or single entity. The evidence leaves no doubt that the intentional recall of detailed information bound to time and place is sensitive to age related decline.3 So is the kind of information processing necessary for complex …

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