For years, lab-based data has shown that cognitive function declines significantly with age. However, applied research (which gathers data from the real world) has shown that many seniors function very well in their everyday lives. Seeing a discrepancy in the data, psychologists investigated and found that even though some cognitive skills decline with age, the brain has natural strategies for keeping everyday function going strong.
The first major strategy is called selective engagement. This basically just means seniors pay attention to what they want to pay attention to, and tune out the other stuff. By saving their cognitive resources for what they deem to be the most important tasks, this allows “older adults to improve performance on the tasks they do choose to engage in, thereby helping to account for inconsistencies between lab-based and real-world data,” according to psychological scientist Dr. Thomas Hess.
The second major strategy is compensating for the decline in memory with the general knowledge and wisdom collected over a lifetime. As we age, our memory of the events of our day-to-day lives gets worse. But elders are able to fill in the gaps in memory using their knowledge and wisdom. This leads to a reliance on prior knowledge which can increase stubbornness and hinder one’s ability to learn new things. As the old saying goes, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” However, it also helps seniors weed out erroneous information.
For example, it is often believed that seniors are most susceptible to consumer fraud than the young. In fact, we’ve written about this ourselves. But according to a new study by the University of Waterloo in Canada, though there is limited data, it would appear that seniors are actually less susceptible to consumer fraud than other age groups.
It’s good to know the brain has natural defenses for cognitive decline. And remember, one of the best ways to keep yourself mentally strong is to exercise and continue living an active lifestyle!