y 2020, people age 65 and older will outnumber
children under 5, according to a United Nations report. At first
glance, that’s a good thing; most people born in 1900 did not
live past age 50.
But age increases the risk for long-term, intractable illnesses
of the body and brain. By 2050, the World Health Organization
estimates, 135 million people worldwide will have dementia.
To help psychologists understand the brain changes
associated with aging, the APA journal Neuropsychology devoted
its November issue to the topic, an area that has taken off over
the past decade, says the journal’s editor Gregory Brown, PhD.
“Psychologists have been … leaders in developing
A special issue of APA’s Neuropsychology
experimental designs and reliable measures for cognitive
assessments, and also for statistical analysis of data,” says
Brown, who also directs the NeuroImaging and Behavioral
Analysis Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego.
“Now, we’re looking at the exciting potential of integrating the
As an example of information that neuropsychologists have
gained about aging, one study in the special issue monitored
the daily activities of 698 physically healthy people ages 74 to
84 over 10 years. The researchers found that even everyday
cognitive tasks — calculating when a prescription refill is
needed, or looking through a phone book — declined over
time, despite scientists’ previous assumptions that these
skills remained relatively stable. The researchers also found a
parallel decline of reasoning ability, suggesting that decline in
executive function might play a greater role in limitations of
daily activities associated with aging than memory decline (see
figure on page 36).
The special issue also includes several articles on decision-
making and the frontal cortex and on the aging person’s ability to
hold and manipulate information and to multitask. “These things
change with aging, [and] may be more critical to daily life than
memory, which most people can work around,” Brown says.
Another study in the issue looked at errors in daily activities
that healthy people make as they age and compared them with
patients who had mild cognitive impairment or dementia. The
Washington State University researchers asked participants
to perform basic daily activities, such as cooking soup or
answering the phone, and watched as they completed them.
explores the way our brains change as we age.
By Stacy Lu • Monitor staff B