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.
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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 585-271-0400.
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!
Coming to grips with a parent's decline and figuring out how to meet their needs can be a terribly stressful ordeal. Marsha and her team made it vastly less so. Marsha's calm demeaner, wisdom and professionalism were invaluable during the 8 months during which my father's needs were rapidly changing. She has a wealth of knowledge about resources available in the community and was able to bring them to bear quickly. I will be eternally grateful for the emotional support she provided during the entire journey.
At a time when you don't know what you don't know, Marcia knows! She asks the right questions, narrows the choices, and provides direction. She definitely helped us feel more confident as we moved forward, and she was thoughtful enough to follow up to be sure we were making progress. Highly recommend.
Marsha and staff were exceptional in their guidance though the difficult and unfamiliar journey of finding quality care for our aging parents. For over three years, they were able to anticipate needs, advocate for our parents, and provide support for them through various crises. We are so thankful for their expertise and compassion through all the changes. We highly recommend Aging Well Rochester to anyone seeking help with aging loved ones.
I just want to thank Aging Well Rochester for their assistance to complete an urgent PRI for my stepmother and also one for my father in case we needed it. The nurse went above & beyond to do that for us as we fortunately found a bed quickly for my stepmother. All went well & she is now receiving wonderful care at St. John's Home. Thank you Marsha and your staff - you made a difficult situation much easier.
Marsha Raines was incredible--responsive, caring and very knowledgeable. She helped me navigate options and provided excellent counsel. I highly recommend Aging Well to you if you are facing a difficult and emotional situation with a loved one who needs ongoing medical/rehabilitation placement and services. Marsha exceeded my expectations. Christine L.
Our initial consultation with Marsha Raines was very informative as it provided our family with a starting point concerning a long term care plan for our aging father. Her knowledge, experience and compassion allowed her to assess where each of us were in dealing with the emotional stress of the situation and provide recommendations to get us moving in the right direct with a long term care plan. Marsha helped us narrow our focus to ask the right questions regarding our next steps in care for our father. Thank you Marsha!
We were exceptionally fortunate to have Marsha Raines of Aging Well Rochester assist us in placing my wife in an appropriate facility. She guided me through all the paperwork, answered every question I had and resolved every impediment that we found in the process!Thanks so much Marsha!
We received great service from Marsha. Highly recommend. Navigating rehab and long-term care can be daunting. Marsha breaks down the ins and outs and helps bring the family to consensus on the best next steps.
Our family reached out to Aging Well Rochester for an understanding of the options and to seek clarity as to next steps for our elderly father regarding his future care. Marsha provided our family with the assistance, guidance and resources necessary to make a decision that was best for our father. Marsha's response to e-mails and phone calls was always in a timely manner and we truly appreciated all of her knowledge and expertise and would not hesitate to recommend Aging Well Rochester!!
Marsha understands the world of aging and the decisions that need to be made. She has both the education and experience to navigate a complex system to secure the best care as well as the expertise to guide throughout the process. My wife and I are grateful for her depth of knowledge, experience, skill, and compassion. We plan to use her as a resource for years to come!
Marsha Raines and her team have been a gift to my family. I'm on the West Coast, and her local knowledge has been extremely valuable in locating care options and knowing what to look for. Her direct style does not shy away from talking about tough issues, and in fact, makes it easier to devise a care plan. Marsha is a gem.
I truly appreciate the advice Marsha has to share. She has a great way of putting things into perspective and knows her stuff! Thank you for the advice, help, and input while trying to figure out the next steps with my parents.
I hired Marsha Raines to help me find the best Nursing Home for my husband. She was professional, quick to answer any questions I had, told me all I needed to do, and quick find him the right place. She was extremely helpful and compassionate with this difficult undertaking . I highly recommend anyone searching for a home for their loved one call Marsha before doing anything else!
Marsha level of expertise in this field has been tremendous. She explained the changes that occurred in the nursing homes industry. She took the time to research nursing homes for me and this afforded me time to focus on my mother's medical needs. I found Marsha to be resourceful and committed to helping me through this difficult time. I would highly recommend her service to you.
We moved our mom to a memory care residence, and in just a few short weeks we realized that it was not the right place for her. Distraught that we had made a horrible mistake, we needed help. I contacted Marsha and she met with our family to help sort things out. She took our concerns seriously, consulted with other industry professionals to assess our mom, and found us a better place for her. Just two weeks later we were able to move mom to a wonderful residence that cares for her properly and gives us all peace of mind. We are so grateful for Marsha and her ability to navigate the challenging world of eldercare on our behalf.
My husband, Bradley, needed to be moved to an adult home due to my inability to continue caring for his needs. I had no idea where to turn until Marsha Raines name was given to me. It is very difficult to navigate this process while you are under stress and her kindness and actions got the process started making it much less painful. I highly recommend her for her insurance knowledge which was extremely helpful to me.Mary Ellen Hindson, Rochester, NY
Marsha Raines assisted our family through the most trying time of our lives with Mom. She was extremely knowledgeable about placement, finances local care available and placement. She was personally involved in contacting the care facility to assist in mom getting placement.Her recommendation of the Presbyterian Home was spot on. All grants recommended came through and we were able to continue her care until she passed away.Thank you Aging Well. I would recommend her services highly.
My parents needed more assistance than I could give working full-time in another state in 2015. They were facing medical issues and needed to move out of their beloved home of 60 years. Since then, Marsha and her team have been instrumental in supporting my parents, and me, through good times and bad. They arranged movers, set up and attended doctor appointments, arranged for aides and companions to assist my parents in living safely and independently, and checked in on them to be sure they were comfortable and happy. Marsha has been an incredible resource to me, providing information and advice when needed in a direct yet sincere manner. I feel relieved to know that Marsha is there to help when I can’t be, keeping me informed, and checking in when needed. She is an incredible resource and advocate for the elderly and their families.
I contacted Marsha two weeks ago. I quickly learned that a PRI, exam to determine the level of care was needed to go into a nursing home. I was given 10 local agencies that could do it. I chose "Aging Well". Marsha was so personable on the phone, getting all the fact. She was able to arrange the exam in 5 days. The nurse showed up on time and my aunt chatted away. Two days later I got an urgent call from my aunt begging me to find her a new place immediately, she had a horrible weekend and wanted out. So, I called Marsha back that same day and asked her to take our case on and help get my aunt placed ASAP. She was pleased to help. She sent me the 3 applications to the facilities my aunt wanted by the end of the day. She kept in close contact with me the next couple of days with words of encouragement while I scrambled to get the information. I submitted the first one. Marsha personally went into the facility and spoke to the intact person giving her more details of my aunt. 5 days later, I moved my aunt into the facility she wanted. Here is a photo of her reaction. Marsha is focused, very knowledgeable, explains the process well, upbeat and is very encouraging. I would work with her again in a heart beat. She is the best.
I have worked with Marsha for 5 years now and have been consistently impressed with her diligence and dedication to providing top notch innovative and caring service. She creatively reaches out to others in the community to put together programs that will provide her clients with the high quality care they need and deserve. She is an extremely responsive and creative care manager!
I have been working with Marsha since 2008 planning for the aging process and various transitions for my parents.She has always been incredibly helpful, knowledgable and available. Over the years she has grown the organization, but still maintains that level of support. Her manner is caring and supportive yet direct, a quality that I have found very comforting and helpful during stressful transitions. I can't recommend highly enough.
Aging well Rochester did an AMAZING job of helping my family deal with my experience and Hospitalization with Covid 19. Marsha worked with my children and family and the hospital staff to make sure that I would receive the care needed upon my return home. I can't thank them enough for making this experience as easy as it could be.
Living more than 500 miles away from Rochester, visiting my mother as often as we would like was a challenge. Luckily I found Marsha Raines and her colleagues at Aging Well Rochester. Their visits to my mom were so frequent and warm that the staff at the nursing home thought they were family! Actually that's how we think of them. In addition to the care and support for my mother, the feedback and advice Marsha and her colleagues provided us was always timely and helpful. I consider the day I found Marsha to be one of my luckiest. I can't imagine the last few years without Aging Well Rochester! Thank you for enriching my mother's life and ours.