What you should know about work and aging-brain health

Illustration by Brian Stauffer for Yahoo

Illustration by Brian Stauffer for Yahoo

In the upper echelons of politics, there’s no shortage of men and women working well past the conventional retirement age.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who turns 90 next month, has said she won’t seek reelection in 2024, but she continues to serve as the oldest member of the U.S. Senate, despite a recent extended medical absence and questions about her mental acuity. In the 2024 presidential election, voters are likely to face a standoff between President Biden, who will be 82 next November, and former President Trump, who will be 78.

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Experts have said that working into old age can be beneficial and improve longevity — but only if it’s by choice; being forced to do so for financial reasons has the opposite effect. Yet many Americans are opposed to having elder statesmen doing the decision making, with 41% saying that old age hurts members of Congress by making their work “more difficult” rather than help them with “wisdom and experience,” according to a recent poll.

So what are the cognitive challenges of working as an older adult — and what can aging professionals bring to the table?

What happens to the brain as we age?

A doctor looks at a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) film that shows a neurodegenerative illness in an aging patient.

A doctor looks at a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) film that shows a neurodegenerative illness in an aging patient. (Getty Images)

The National Institute on Aging says that as we get older, it’s not just our bodies that begin to look different — physical changes begin to occur in the brain as well. Certain areas of the brain begin to shrink, “especially those important to learning and other complex mental activities”; communication between nerve cells in certain regions may not be as effective; there’s more inflammation; and “blood flow in the brain may decrease.”

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These physical changes can correlate with changes in mental function too, but experts say there’s no fixed, universal mold when it comes to aging.

“I just saw someone in my clinic yesterday who was 86, and she really looks like she’s in her late 60s or early 70s,” Dr. Sharon Sha, a clinical professor of neurology and chief of the Memory Disorders Division at Stanford University, told Yahoo News. “I’ve met 90-year-olds who run ultramarathons, so their joints and their cardiovascular function and their brain is not reflective of a typical 90-year-old. So yes, brains can be acting very differently.”

Sha also notes that while some changes in mental function are to be expected, we’re not all predestined to encounter dementia when we get older.

According to a recent study by Columbia University, almost 10% of U.S. adults ages 65 and older have dementia, and an additional 22% have mild cognitive impairment. Instances of cognitive impairment do increase with age, though they’re still in the minority; while 3% of people between 65 and 69 have dementia, that number rises to 35% of people ages 90 and over.

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What are some challenges to working as an octogenarian?

Even for an otherwise healthy individual, some cognitive changes are to be expected. Sha said that for many people that means changes in the following:

  • Processing speed: “As we get older, there’s some decline in how quickly we’re thinking.”

  • Working memory: “The amount of total information that we can hold can diminish slightly, but not to a significant amount.”

Decreased attention and ability to multitask can also be affected.

“Our bodies are not what they once were,” David Myers, an 80-year-old professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich., told Yahoo News. “The stairs have gotten steeper, the newsprint smaller, others’ voices fainter, our sleep more interrupted. Our memories and reasoning are less speedy. We more often experience brain freezes as we try to retrieve someone’s name or the next point we were about to make.”

What benefits can older workers bring to the table?

Boat-building craftsman. (Getty Images)

Boat-building craftsman. (Getty Images)

Yet Myers said there are plenty of gifts as well as challenges to being a working octogenarian. As a social psychologist, Myers defies many of the conventional stereotypes affiliated with aging in the U.S.; he recently published a book of essays on “curiosities and marvels of the human mind” — the latest of 18 books he has written.

“There’s a temptation to lump octogenarians together, when actually their stamina and abilities vary much more than, say, 8-year-olds,” Myers said. “At 80, some are approaching death while others remain energized, purpose-filled and quick-witted.”

He said there are several advantages to being an older working professional:

  • Crystallized intelligence: “Although we octogenarians don’t think as quickly (our ‘fluid intelligence’ is subsiding), our ‘crystallized intelligence’ — our lifetime of knowledge and the ability to apply it — remains strong.”

  • Wisdom: “Older adults often benefit from a greater ability to keep things in perspective, to navigate conflicts and to appreciate the limits of their own knowledge. It takes experience to know what you don’t know.”

  • Emotional stability: “As teens and young adults, we rode an emotional roller coaster. In later life, our feelings mellow. We’re better able to look beyond the moment. Compliments produce less elation, criticisms less despair or irritation. Thus when facing the day’s slings and arrows, we can better take a big-picture perspective.”

The National Institute on Aging says there may be some positive cognitive changes too, with many studies showing that older adults “have more extensive vocabularies and greater knowledge of the depth of meaning of words than younger adults.”

How to keep your brain healthy and spry as you get older

Women doing yoga exercises at a park.

Women doing yoga exercises at a park. (Getty images)

While genes and family history can play some role in how well you age, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that “up to 40% of dementia cases may be prevented or delayed.”

A lot of brain health comes down to lifestyle choices, and Sha shared a few pieces of advice that she usually gives to her patients for better brain aging — with one tip ranking the highest.

“Exercise, exercise, exercise. Research studies are really confirming how much aerobic exercise is important for brain health,” Sha said. “I think getting your heart rate up is important 30 minutes a day, if you can do that at the minimum.”

A heart-healthy Mediterranean diet — rich in plant-based foods like seeds, vegetables and whole grains as well as fish — can do wonders for the brain as well.

While there are no specific “brain games” that offer a surefire way to better brain health, cognitive stimulation plays a significant role too.

In addition to daily exercise, Myers says it is this “active engagement” that has helped him stay sharp into his 80s — “through reading and writing and interactions that keep my brain alive and growing, and my life still purpose-filled.”

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