"One of the greatest success stories of modern times is the increasing number of people living into old age. However, this triumph of humanity is also one of our greatest challenges" - Kofi Annan, Nobel Prize Winner
Decline in cognitive abilities, like memory and attention, represents the most profound threat to active and healthy ageing, and heralds economic and social catastrophe. The ageing population is one of the greatest challenges facing mankind, because the imminent doubling of the ageing population will double the demands on health and social services,with impaired cognitive function being the biggest obstacle to active and healthy ageing.
However, there is considerable inter-individual variability with regard to the nature and severity of cognitive impairment observed, and some individuals do not experience any decline with age. This heterogeneity of cognitive functioning observed in older adults, together with the scientific discovery that the brain is plastic (i.e. has the capacity to change structure and ultimately function across the lifespan) has sparked considerable global interest in finding ways to maintain cognitive function, prevent decline, extend independent living and promote active and healthy ageing.
Enhancing brain function: A scientific revolution
The ground breaking finding that the human brain is 'plastic' and is shaped by experience, training and stimulation at any age has overturned previous pessimistic and incorrect assumptions about complete 'hard-wiring' of the brain that prevailed for much of the twentieth century. We now have methods for stimulating the brains of people, including elders, and of increasing mental function and real life performance as a result. A very brief selection of some of the findings from this research include:
- Leisure activities/mental activity predict conversion to Alzheimer's disease in the over 75s;
- Over 60's who learn piano improve cognitive function;
- Recovery from certain types of stroke disability is proportional to the number of hours of physiotherapy;
- Social engagement in old age predicts the degree of Alzheimer linked brain pathology (neurofibrillary tangles);
- Older people searching the internet show significantly enhanced blood flow and brain activation in frontal lobes;
- Older people playing demanding strategic computer games show enduring improvements in high level mental functions;
- Computer delivered cognitive training can enhance memory and other cognitive functions in elders, and these benefits can translate into improved everyday function.