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New perspectives on brain power in older age

by on June 11, 2014

Tonight’s episode of Frontiers (BBC Radio 4 at 9pm) promises a report on the latest thinking about brain power in old age, which is causing some researchers to re-think the concept of retirement (actually, this has had quite an overhaul in the last decade already).

The programme will feature researchers who argue that society has overly negative views of the mental abilities of the elderly, describing these views as a ‘dismal and fatalistic outlook which is not backed up by recent discoveries and theories’.

Amongst those mentioned are the Cambridge research team (Cam-CAN) who are comparing cognition and brain structure and function in 700 people aged between 18 and 88 years old. According to their website, new scientific discoveries suggest that the brain remains flexible and adaptable across the lifespan, with many cognitive abilities being preserved. Their research aims to understand the nature of these brain-cognition relationships across the lifespan, and to change the perspective of ageing in the 21st century by highlighting the importance of abilities that are maintained into old age.

Also featured is the work of Michael Ramscar, who argues that older people perform less well in intelligence and memory tests because they know so much more than younger participants and not because their brains are deteriorating. The argument is that the brains of older peole take longer to retrieve answers from their richer memory stores. The theory seems to draw on parallels with computers (it certainly seems to explain the slow working of my laptop which is overloaded with visual data!). The work of Ramscar’s team is described as ‘controversial’ and it’ll be interesting to hear more.

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