The aging mind

The gradual changes the human mind experiences at a great age are still an issue of continuous discussion and controversy. Are they the result of some sort of disorder, or are they an inevitable part of the natural process of aging?

One of the earliest symptoms of mental aging is a progressive forgetfulness, in particular in relation to events that happened shortly before. In addition the powers of concentration and mental flexibility diminish, but the capacity to reflect on and to understand complicated matters remains intact for a long time. Mental changes usually go hand in hand with a physical deterioration which does not make it any easier to accept the fact that one is growing older. The keenness of senses such as sight and hearing becomes diminished, balance and muscular strength decrease and problems related to the internal organs may arise. Fortunately, there are also many elderly people that up to an old age do not experience any serious problems concerning body or mind. Apart from this, during old age high demands are often made on one’s adaptibility but at the same time this adaptibility is clearly becoming less. The type of surroundings is closely connected with these changes and with the ways the elderly person will cope with them.

Post-mortem brain research has established that the same anatomical and physiological changes exist in healthy as well as in diseased brains of old people. Because the anatomical changes can for the greater part be established only after death, the question arises over which way they manifest themselves during life. In this connection, a person’s behaviour is the main indication of what is organically happening in the brain of aging people.

Mental performance

Among all mental processes that manifest themselves during the process of aging the deterioration of memory takes a prominent place. Because of the gradual decrease in number of the most important type of brain cells, the neurons, the intellectual faculties of elderly people slowly decrease as well. From about our twentieth year of life we loose 10,000 brain cells daily, from a total of 10,000 million. Fortunately in most people this process happens so slowly that the results are hardly noticeable; the mental faculties of a great number of people remain remarkably good up to a great age. Besides the memory the reflexes too are influenced by the loss of these brain cells. As a result of the fact that the neurons decrease in number and the remaining ones become less capable of giving off powerful impulses, the reaction to all kinds of different stimuli, from outside as well as from inside the body, diminishes as a person ages. Not only does the reaction time – that is, the time it takes a stimulus, such as heat when one burns one’s fingers, to result in a reaction – grow longer, but also such internal sensations as the feeling that one’s bladder is full and should be emptied become less intense. Learning new things is a process closely connected to the memory, because the latter should take care of the recording of newly learned information in such a manner that it may be recalled at the right time. In spite of the generally reduced memory capacity and the fact that a certain training is an advantage to learning, there are still no major differences in the learning capacities between the young and the old. However, it is important to elderly people to have a motivation for what they want to learn. Sometimes seemingly apparent differences in intelligence in young and old people depend mainly on the method of testing and the kind of intelligence measured. The significant factor is speed. Generally results have been blamed on an inferior intelligence, although in reality this has been because elderly people tend to be somewhat slower. In addition the level of education, motivation and general state of health should be taken into account.

Memory and personality

Memory is undoubtedly affected by aging. Unlike other ‘higher’ functions such as reasoning, memory is not located in one specific area of the brain but scattered throughout it. Old people are usually good at recalling the distant past but have greater difficulty in recalling recent events. This is because the past was committed to memory when the brain was considerably more efficient in assimilating information, and possibly because past events were more novel and interesting whereas an old person has ‘seen it all before’. When mental degeneration becomes more serious, even these more distant memories are lost. Not only are recent events difficult to recall as one gets older but also new skills, ideas and modes of behaviour become harder to acquire. Old people tend to become ‘set in their ways’, although many elderly people enter this phase of resistance to change with their tolerance and sense of humour intact.

Motivation also changes as years pass by. Goals that were formerly pursued are either fulfilled, altered or given up. Old people also have to face up to declining physical strength, perhaps increasing ill health, and possibly worsened finances. Under such circumstances a loss of ambition or drive is a natural and reasonable response. It has been said that old age is the ultimate personality test: all the inadequacies or limitations a person has carried throughout the years come together. Psychologists have defined four types of outlook in the elderly: the ‘rocking-chair’ mentality – happy with the past, content with the present, unafraid of the future; the ‘armour’ mentality – determined to struggle against disabilities and remain independent for as long as possible; ‘angry’ – unable to come to terms with the inequalities of youth and old age and therefore bitter. And in the fourth place is ‘self-hating’; wishing to be a burden to nobody and quietly praying for death. Whether old age is a time of misery or a ‘golden sunset’ will partly depend on how fulfilling and well adjusted an individual’s adult life has been. The neurotic middle-aged person who suffers a degree of hypochondria is likely to become worse in old age -perhaps reasonably so because there is more to be anxious about. On the other hand, someone who has lived a balanced life, remembering that old age is unavoidable, is more likely to face the loss of certain abilities with cheerful acceptance.