We all know that after the age of 65, lots of things change. If you had kids, they are likely out of the house and have families of their own. You have likely reached the age of retirement, and must consider when and how to transition out of the workforce. A host of lifestyle changes begin to crop up: This can range from something as drastic as a full transition into a home or assisted living facility all the way down to enjoying the senior discount at certain shops and stores.
In short, 65 is one age that can mark the line between adulthood and old age. Psychological researchers have taken increasing interest in this stage of life, as the number of seniors in most developed countries is projected to double between the years of 2010 and 2050. With such a significant percentage of the population in this stage of life, it becomes all the more important to understand the challenges that seniors face. In response, the field of gerontology (the scientific study of old age) has seen an explosion in funding and popularity in recent years.
One of the most important issues facing gerontology researchers is the cognitive decline associated with old age: how it can be prevented, and how it can be ameliorated. None of these issues is more difficult than memory loss, and recent research may have discovered one important way to delay memory loss in seniors. Let’s take a look at the general effects of aging on cognitive ability, the new research, and what it all means.
Cognitive Decline with Aging
It’s important to be able to tell the difference between the normal, universal effects of aging, and a pathologic cognitive decline that requires medical attention. With the prevalence rates of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease on the rise, many seniors can experience a feeling of fear that prevents them from addressing any symptoms of cognitive decline.
On the other hand, the most effective seniors are able to recognize and admit to the general cognitive failings that accompany old age, and make allowances to address them. Some of these normal changes accompanying typical old age include decreases in memory, processing speed, and conceptual reasoning. In general, cognitive abilities based on what is called “crystallized intelligence” (i.e. general knowledge, vocabulary) don’t change much over time. However, abilities that fall under the heading of “fluid intelligence” (i.e. problem-solving, attention, reasoning) are subject to decline.
Specific to memory, the specific type of memory that begins to decline once old age hits is called “semantic memory,” which encompasses language use (particularly the meaning of words) and practical knowledge such as general information recall. When these changes occur, more often it is not the ability to retain old memories that has declined, but rather the ability to access new ones.
It is not easy to know when this general memory loss crosses the line into something that could require serious attention, and it differs for every single person. One general test that can indicate whether memory loss is normal or pathologic is to note how familiar the information is that was lost. Forgetting the name of a new acquaintance or forgetting a fact that you learned last week on Jeopardy is much less concerning than forgetting how to drive about in very familiar areas or how to perform a routine task. However, individuals with any degree of concern over any memory loss should consult a physician.
The Effects of Volunteering on Memory
When a senior is able to take in this information about what types of memory loss are to be expected in old age, they become able to accept the problem as something real, and begin looking for ways to improve it. There are a host of resources out there about strategies that can help seniors with memory loss to not let the changes in memory slow them down, to work around the difficulties, and to continue to lead productive, fulfilling lives.
A recent research study has added to this wealth of scholarship by revealing the impact that volunteering can have to prevent memory loss in seniors. The study, published in 2016 in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, showed that seniors who volunteer generally enjoyed better physical and emotional health, tended to live longer, and showed a 27% decrease in risk of developing cognitive decline. This was true even if the seniors had other risk factors, including inactivity and smoking.
The study was conducted by researchers at Arizona State University in the United States, and followed more than 13,000 seniors (over age 60) for a period of 14 years. Seniors were asked every 2 years if they had volunteered at least one time, for any reason, over the last 12 months. The seniors also came in regularly for testing on various markers of physical and emotional health.
Importantly, these volunteering effort not only hold personal benefit for the seniors who perform the service, but they also combine together to make an enormous social and economic impact. For retirees with open workday hours to devote their efforts to improving the community can cause a positive spiral for everyone involved.
Making the Effort to Try
In the final analysis, volunteering is simply one way among many for seniors to improve their quality of life and prevent the memory loss that accompanies cognitive decline. The authors of the study went so far as to suggest that perhaps physicians should consider giving seniors a “volunteering prescription.” This idea is apt, because it illustrates the point that many different activities can lead to the positive effects demonstrated in the study.
What’s most important is that seniors make an effort. It can be easy for seniors to avoid the challenges of trying new things, learning new skills, meeting new people, and pursuing physical exertion. However, it is precisely this effort that contributes to a positive health spiral of physical, social, and emotional well-being.
In the end, lots of things change at the age of 65, but the ability to lead a full, rich life does not have to be one of them.
Spirit Room Team
Infurna, F. J., Okun, M. A., & Grimm, K. J. (In press). Volunteering is associated with decreased risk for cognitive impairment. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
Harada, C. N., Love, M. C. N., & Triebel, K. L. (2013). Normal cognitive aging. Clinics in Geriatric Medicine, 29(4), 737-752.