We know that ageing brings about age-related decline to all our organs and that includes our brain. Our brain is in a sense a central computer where everything that is happening in our bodies and minds gets processed (read more in our article The ageing brain: 'use it or lose it'). We do not know exactly how our organs, including the brain, will be affected by ageing and which might be affected first, which makes predicting age-related decline a difficult task within one individual as well as in the population as a whole. In this article and related podcast we focus on how some of our specific brain functions (memory and attention span) might be affected as we age.
Physiological, normal ageing results in the mild continuous decline of functions, skills and capacities, often due to wear and tear of all the systems.Physiological, normal ageing results in the mild continuous decline of functions, skills and capacities, often due to wear and tear of all the systems. Pathological ageing is being often referred to as speeded-up ageing, where due to some missing components (self-repair functions, quickly advancing changes in neurotransmitters and neurones; significantly increased presence of plaques and tangles in the brain; or chronic inflammations) the decline of our brain progresses faster when compared to physiological ageing. You can read more in our article What happens to our brain as we age and how can we stop the decline?.
Physiological ageing, also called normal ageing, results from a natural wear and tear and affects our brain directly and indirectly. Some examples of indirect age-related changed are: a slowed basic metabolism and changes to our cardiovascular system and blood flow; and the flow to the brain gets slower as arteries narrow.
If our organs aren’t working optimally, toxicity can build up from the medication we are taking. This in turn affects all of our organs, including the brain. This may result in us feeling dizzy, wobbly, sedated, and not keen to go out and about, meet with other people and go outdoors walking – all of which is immensely stimulating for our body and our brain. Further lack of exercise then contributes even more to the overall sedation and inactivity leading to lack of stimulation and further decrease in function.
Changes to the brain as we age include changes to our processing speed and memory (how we store and retrieve information) through a series of connected cognitive processes.
Memory is just one specific part of our broader thinking skills, influenced by and interacting with lots of other types of cognitive factors.When people talk about changes to their memory they often talk as if memory is one distinct thing and the only thing that influences our thinking skills. But memory is just one specific part of our broader thinking skills, influenced by and interacting with lots of other types of cognitive factors. We call this the ‘cognitive pyramid’.
For information from our senses (sights, sounds, touch, taste, smell) to become a memory it has to be processed in several ways first. Initially we must be in a position to process information before it becomes lost to us. You will notice yourself that if you are ever tired, unwell, or in pain that it can feel as if it takes a lot longer to take information in and make sense of it; this is your information processing speed. Linked to this, if we want to make sense of information we must first be able to give it the necessary attention. This is very tricky to do when you are trying to do multiple things at once. Once information has been processed and attended to, then it can become stored as a memory; including memory for visual (picture) and verbal (words) information and immediate (short term) and delayed (longer term) memory.
Another really important aspect of thinking is ‘executive functioning’. This is responsible for planning, organising, sequencing and problem solving. Someone may be able to recognise and recall information perfectly well (therefore not a ‘memory’ problem) but may struggle to use this information to make decisions, complete tasks, plan in daily life and so on.
Where people have a difficulty in their thinking skills, it can be within any of these specific areas or a mixture of them, and it is important that we know which ones so that we can match strategies to help accordingly.
Ways to maximise our cognitive functioning
We have spoken in previous blogs and podcasts about how stimulation is really important for everyone in maximising our memory and thinking skills. A previous podcast has spoken about mindfulness outdoors and how to pay attention to the information coming from our senses. By taking the time to slow down and focus on one thing at a time we maximise the chance of paying attention to our experiences and surroundings and give ourselves the best chance to process, store and retrieve information effectively.
You can also use outdoor settings as a chance to practice more general cognitive techniques:
- Spot different categories of objects and switch between categories (e.g. an animal, then a flower, then an animal again). This psychological flexibility is an important part of executive functioning.
- Notice 5 items and try different strategies to remember them over the course of a walk.
- Use a mnemonic which is a tool that helps us remember certain facts or large amounts of information.
- Use location to jog memory, such as trying to remember one item per section of the park and then replaying the route in your mind to recall these items.
- Use someone with you to support you by ‘cueing’. This is where they provide the first letter of the word and this can prompt you to remember the rest.
As with all good things, this type of memory practice should be fun and not be based on being self-critical (as that makes remembering things feel harder).
Regular exercise, especially when also being outdoors brings immense benefits that have an impact on the direct as well as indirect causes of declining memory.Regular exercise, especially when also being outdoors brings immense benefits that have an impact on the direct as well as indirect causes of declining memory. On the physiological level, exercising regularly brings slightly increased basic metabolic rate and improves blood flow in the whole body including our brain. This is great as a brain that gets regular blood flow and is therefore sufficiently oxygenated performs more optimally when it comes to attention span as well as processing, storing and retrieving the information we need.
Another benefit worth mentioning is being mindful and as we for example walk outdoors, we focus on paying more attention on sounds, sights, smells and nature around us. You can find more information in our articles: the common myths about mindfulness; walking and staying mindful; the benefits of exercising outdoors for people with or without dementia; and the benefits of staying outdoors.
There is a lot that can be found around the UK. In Milton Keynes, for example, The Parks Trust offers activities that are exercise-based such as Discovery Strolls (monthly guided walks) that enable people of all abilities to get out and about and get familiar with their local parks. There are also walking schemes such as Women’s Walking Network and other exercise/educational activities. You can find these on the What’s On section of the website, or you can contact them directly by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or phoning the office.
But you don’t need to live in Milton Keynes to get the benefits of these activities. You can care for your memory in very simple ways such as taking a walk and noticing things along the way and perhaps check out episodes that are available on The Parks Trust YouTube channel.
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