This article was originally published in Never Too Late (PCOA News). View the original article here.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to give a presentation as part of the University of Arizona’s 2023 College of Science Lecture Series. The theme of the series was “Myth Busting Science”. I decided to focus my talk on myths about aging and, in particular, “one size fits all” – the idea that we are all aging in the same way, that my experience of aging is the same as yours. Of course that’s not true. We all including our genetics, our lifetime experiences, our health, emotional well-being, social support, lifestyle, environment, education, hobbies, and the list goes on. I highlighted the individual and unique ways that each of us ages by focusing on my own research on the aging brain and memory changes that occur as we age. I also highlighted many of the positives of aging that our society often overlooks – knowledge, resilience, perspective, balance, and wisdom. In my column today, I’ll talk about just a few of these myths.
Here’s the first important myth: If we live long enough, we’ll all develop Alzheimer’s disease. This idea has been around for a long time, and although it’s becoming less prevalent, it still pops up in the popular press as well as scientific articles and presentations. Currently, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 1 in 8 people over the age of 65 will develop Alzheimer’s disease. In recent years, that number may have decreased to 1 in 9 people. That translates into somewhere around 13% of the population, a very sobering and concerning statistic. But it also means that the other 87% — a large majority of older adults – will not experience dementia in their lifetime. It’s important to point out that a recent study at Columbia University shows that, among those 87% of older adults without dementia, about a third will experience some level of cognitive impairment, including memory changes. For most people, these changes will be relatively mild. For some, they can be sufficiently severe that they interfere with quality of life, and may even contribute to loss of independence. But it’s not the kind of severe debilitating memory loss that is experienced by individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.
That leads to a second important myth: Cognitive impairment happens to everyone as we get older. Does everyone over age 65 experience memory problems? Are people in their 20’s and 30’s always better at memory tests than older adults? The answer is a resounding no. Recently, my colleagues and I gave a memory test to nearly 200,000 people across the United States, from ages 18 to 90+. We found large variability in memory performance at every age – some people got perfect scores (yes, even people in their 90’s), others scored very poorly (including people in their 20’s), and a wide range of scores in between. About a third of people in their 70’s and 80’s scored higher than the average 20 year old. And even more surprisingly, about a third of people in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s had memory scores that were lower than the average 80 year old!
More and more, our research is proving these myths about aging to be false. We won’t all develop dementia as we grow older. And, it appears that many people will maintain their cognitive abilities, including memory, well into their 70’s, 80’s, and potentially beyond. This is a very positive message about the aging brain. Researchers in the Precision Aging Network are trying to understand why some people experience decline, while others stay cognitively healthy. We hope this knowledge will lead to new insights into ways that we can better maintain our brain health across our entire lifespan. By the way, you can watch the lecture series on UofA’s College of Science youtube channel, or at this link: https://www.youtube.com/live/zoSqgKlRoFg?feature=share
If you’d like to hear more about our studies, or if you’d be interested in participating, send us an email at healthymindsforlife@email. arizona.edu. We’ll tell you about some great opportunities to get involved. I’ll look forward to hearing from you!