Study: What Experience Does To Our Heads

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The claim: Our brains get slower as we age not because of age-related cognitive decline, but because it takes longer to process the lifetime of experiences and knowledge we’ve acquired, says a new study published in Topics In Cognitive Science

The research: Michael Ramscar, PhD, and his team at Tuebingen University in Germany programmed computers to act like humans on a cognitive level, letting them “read” a little every day and acquire new knowledge. When the researchers set the computers to read a limited amount, their performance on cognitive tests mimicked that of a young adult. But when they allowed the computers to read unlimited data—similar to what a person would acquire in a lifetime by age 60 or 70—their performance on the tests slowed down. Clearly not because of decline, says Dr. Ramscar, but because they needed more time to process the information among a crowded database.

What it means: This study contradicts a wide set of beliefs that with normal aging comes a deterioration of the brain. Instead, it may give credence to the adage, "older and wiser." "A certain amount of slowing is simply the price we pay for a rich set of memories and the benefits of wisdom," says Dr. Ramscar. 

Your brain is constantly changing, even down to how much grey matter and white matter you have. And while cell death and a shrinking hippocampus have been associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, research shows that significant cell death is not a characteristic of normal aging in the areas of the brain associated with learning and memory, says Dr. Ramscar. And he isn’t the only one trying to debunk the common misconception between aging and cognitive decline: A 2013 Psychology and Aging study found that while older participants showed a declining ability to learn new information, they showed greater patience and performed equally or better in decision-making experiments as younger participants.

The bottom line: Dr. Ramscar hopes the results of this study will encourage more people to not confuse changes in their brain with decline. Subtle forgetfulness, misplacing your keys, and feeling like you’re searching forever for names might be your brain’s way of rifling through years of memories and information. But if the forgetfulness is obvious to your family and is affecting your daily life, you may need to see a doctor.

More from Prevention: 25 Little Ways To Stay Sharp For Life 

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