One of the greatest concerns I have in terms of adjusting to getting older is how the process will impact my cognitive functioning in terms of long term (LTM), short-term (STM)/working memory (WM).
My dad succumbed to the cognitive ravages of Alzheimer’s disease; therefore, I considered whether I might be genetically pre-disposed to the disease. If not, what was my fate in terms of normal brain aging and cognition? What could I do to improve cognitive functioning in terms of memory?
Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of aging. Its mission is to slowly and mercilessly erode cognitive functions including memory. My dad had some good moments during his initial battle with the disease. My family and I would observe him use implicit memory to confidently and safely walk to the kitchen to get a beverage then drink it without issue; therefore, his right parietal lobe, at least at this time, was functioning as well as his cerebellum. In addition, in terms of working memory, his “visuospatial sketchpad held visual and spatial information.” (Goldstein, Bruce E. 2011) The observation was painful in light of the circumstances, yet had an element of fleeting comfort.
Eventually, he was unable to feed himself as a result of his left parietal lobe degeneration. (Alzheimer’s Society 2014) My dad was an engineer, who excelled at and enjoyed process optimization, which defines the work of an engineer. Yet the disease, ultimately, would not allow him to invoke episodic memories that pertained to his career, family and friends. Episodic memories are adversely impacted by the deterioration of parts of the medial temporal lobe: the hippocampus, which is responsible for the formation of new LTM, the thalmus, which is responsible for sensory perception, and the amygdala, which processes emotions associated with memory). (UCSF Aging and Memory Center 2014)
But what of his retrieval of a LTM regarding his mother’s preparation of breakfast many, many years ago (episodic memory), then his “awareness of the stored information that was (apparently) moved back to STM?” (Goldstein, Bruce E. 2011) Is STM not the first cognitive function to start declining as a result of the disease? The answer is that the initial resiliency of LTM is the result of an unconscious rehearsal of the best remembered memories so recall is strengthened.” (Morris, John C. 2016) Apparently recall of these long ago events relies on the hippocampus less. (Alzheimer’s Society 2014)
My dad’s right temporal lobe deteriorated; therefore, in terms of visual coding for LTM, my dad could not recognize family members based on their face or appearance. (Alzheimer’s Society 2014) (Goldstein, Bruce E. 2011) That reality was almost unbearable.
During the normal course of research, I learned that the probability of succumbing to early onset familial Alzheimer’s disease was low. In addition, “fewer than one in five adults age 65 or older have the disease, which rises exponentially with age.” (American Psychological Association 2016)
For those of you in your early 20’s, you will be happy to know that your brain’s volume is at its peak; however, it’s a downward spiral from there. The cortex shrinks, neurons atrophy, dendritic connections are reduced, and blood flow declines. Episodic, source, and flashbulb memories decline the most, while semantic and procedural memory decline the least. Planning and organizing activities take more effort. (American Psychological Association 2011)
I currently focus on a lifestyle that may improve my cognitive functioning in terms of memory by (1) eliminating distractions as the process of information encoding and retrieval can be adversely impacted, (2) exercising: I take intermediate level ballet classes, (3) socializing, (4) staying positive about the aging process as memory might improve as a result, 5) challenging myself intellectually (I am enrolled in the PSU psychology degree program), (6) reducing stress: I’m working on that, and (7) practicing self-efficacy. (American Psychological Society)
I have no reason to believe that my brain is not going through a normal, age-related, degenerative process. I do my due diligence in terms of researching credible information on the topic, then discussing the information with my doctor. I don’t want the fear of decreasing cognitive abilities such as memory to keep me from understanding and managing the normal brain aging process in spite of the “downward spiral.”
Goldstein, Bruce E. “Glossary.” Cognitive Psychology Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience. 3rd Edition. Wadsworth Cengage Learning. Copyright 2011, 2008. pg. 132.
Image credit: Jannis Productions. Rebekah Fredenburg, computer animation; Stacy Jannis, illustration/art direction.“Under the Microscope.” Braintour. Alzheimer’s Association. Copyright © 2011 Alzheimer’s Association®. web 12 July 2016
“Dementia and the Brain.” Alzheimer’s Society. Last reviewed: September 2014. All content Ó 2106 Alzheimer’s Society. web 11 July 2016. n.pg.
“Episodic Memory.” Brain 101: Topics in Neuroscience. University of California San Francisco Memory and Aging Center. © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Page Content Reviewed: December 8, 2014. web 11 July 2016. n.pg.
Morris, John C,. M.D.“Why do Alzheimer’s Patients Remember Certain Things and Forget Others?” Washington University School of Medicine St. Louis. Copyright 2007-2016 Caring. Web 11 July 2016. n. pg.
Memory Changes in Older Adults. American Psychological Association. Ó2016 American Psychological Association. web 11 June 2016. N. pg.
Vierck, Elizabeth.“Memory and Aging.” APA Office on Aging and Committee on Aging. Ó2016 American Psychological Association. web 11 June 2016. N. pg.