The brain slows with age – right? At the more modest end of that spectrum, we have the benign (and sometimes even humorous) “senior moment.” At the other end, the tragedy of Alzheimer’s Disease.
There is strong evidence for age-related physical impairment triggering mental decline. We’ve all read about plaque build-up in the brain, for example.
But now comes some fascinating evidence, reported in this excellent article in The New York Times, that other factors may be in play.
Over the years, some scientists have questioned this dotage curve. But these challenges have had an ornery-old-person slant: that the tests were biased toward the young, for example. Or that older people have learned not to care about clearly trivial things, like memory tests. Or that an older mind must organize information differently from one attached to some 22-year-old who records his every Ultimate Frisbee move on Instagram.
Now comes a new kind of challenge to the evidence of a cognitive decline, from a decidedly digital quarter: data mining, based on theories of information processing. In a paper published in Topics in Cognitive Science, a team of linguistic researchers from the University of Tübingen in Germany used advanced learning models to search enormous databases of words and phrases.
Since educated older people generally know more words than younger people, simply by virtue of having been around longer, the experiment simulates what an older brain has to do to retrieve a word. And when the researchers incorporated that difference into the models, the aging “deficits” largely disappeared.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that there are no physical effects of aging on the brain, or that these effects are not important:
…the new study is not likely to overturn 100 years of research, cognitive scientists say. Neuroscientists have some reason to believe that neural processing speed, like many reflexes, slows over the years; anatomical studies suggest that the brain also undergoes subtle structural changes that could affect memory.
Still, the new report will very likely add to a growing skepticism about how steep age-related decline really is.
To sum up, from the last line of this article:
It’s not that you’re slow. It’s that you know so much.
Take the time to read the entire piece. It’s important.