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Decreasing brain performance - causes, symptoms and brain training

Decreasing brain performance - causes, symptoms and brain training



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Declining brain performance in old age?

Until a few decades ago, it was a matter of course that the brain function declines in old age. New findings from the neurosciences today prove that there is no such “natural law”. On the other hand, whether and how the brain's performance slows down, remains stable or even increases depends heavily on social factors and training - the human brain is a social organ.

"Young people have the prerogative of radicalism, with age comes life experience." (Prof. Dr. Ingolf Ahlers)

A complex system

The human brain is an extremely complex system that is constantly changing. The factors influencing this development include the genetic basis, psyche and body, the social environment, i.e. relationships, relatives, friends, community and society as well as the natural environment, i.e. climate, weather, air, forests, seas etc. , the artificial environment such as technology and science and the worldview, ie philosophy, ethics, ideology, religion etc. All of these factors are related and the brain develops in their interactions.

The development of the brain

The human brain develops before birth. The brain of the embryo grows in the first three months. It is extremely sensitive at this early stage. Infectious diseases of the mother can damage the brain of the unborn child, as can harmful substances.

The brain is a "superorgan", an extreme development comparable to the trunk of the elephant or the brain of the giraffe. Unlike the brains of reptiles, it is far from finished at birth; its complexity and size mean that it grows and develops after birth. So many nerve pathways only develop in the two years of life, only now the nerve fibers become thicker, only step by step does the toddler react to more and more environmental stimuli.

While a foal stands and runs on its own feet shortly after birth, it takes a person up to two years to walk alone. Human memory develops even up to the age of five, which also explains why we have little real memories of our first time in the world.

Children only develop social behavior and slow, i.e. logical, thinking at the end of this first phase of shaping. Both form in the interplay of biological development and the social environment. Young children go through a “magic phase” in which their inner experience and outer environment are not yet separated.

In short, this is the time when you still believe in Santa Claus. Systematic thinking emerges between the ages of five and seven. It begins, for example, with six-year-olds thinking about how Santa Claus can come to all the children in an evening, where the gifts are made, whether Santa Claus has a special vehicle, etc. They also develop in this development of logical thinking language, spatial and mathematical skills.

We speak of the “defiance phase” of three-year-olds. Now I-consciousness is developing. The young person realizes that he is a person and that this I has different needs and interests than other people.

Selective memory

The brain works selectively. It only stores what we use and / or train regularly. In the long-term memory, however, there remains a “stock” of potentially useful experiences, images and patterns that we can refer to in an emergency - that is, when we activate certain stimuli.

Memories are not objective, they are earmarked. The patterns that are stored in the synapses do not reflect an actual process, but storylines that are recognized as useful. We find ourselves reading old diaries that the reality described therein looked different from the stories we tell about that time. This is not necessarily because we lie, i.e. consciously transform experiences, but because the brain arranges our memories so that they fit into our respective life questions.

This applies to both positive and negative. A person who suffers from depression in the clinical sense will always find confirmation in his "past" that a "life in hell" was preprogrammed for him; a bipolar in his manic phase, on the other hand, always finds “evidence” that he is “chosen to save the world”.

Loss of substance in the brain

The cell bodies and connections between the nerves increase continuously until the age of 12. The brain is bubbling over with new synapses. The synapses then develop until around the mid-20s, and from the age of 40 we break down brain cells.

The prefrontal cortex continues to form into the second half of the Twenty-Somethings. The psychologist Kristine Walhovd from Oslo found that the brain regions age first, which develop last. In particular, the function of the forehead decreases and this controls attention; the hippocampus where long-term memory is located also shrinks.

The nerves that connect the regions of the brain generally increase until the 1940s, when they go back. This affects above all the speed at which we process mental challenges, but not necessarily on our general ability to do so. Communication between the individual "task areas" of the brain is no longer smooth.

What happens to our brains in old age?

The density of the synapses decreases with age, as does the amount of nerve fibers covered with myelin. In return, the density of the neurofibrils increases, and a protein accumulates that leads to the death of nerve cells in large quantities.

The brains of people who have excellent memory in old age show fewer clusters of these "balls" than people whose brains age normally.

"Typical" signs of aging

It is typical of an "aging brain" that older people have problems to remember and / or perceive different things at the same time. Short-term memory is deteriorating. We have to keep a note for the daily routine, while we were able to memorize the corresponding points beforehand.

This is not a reason to panic. It can be natural signs of wear. Nevertheless, we should not accept it as a "natural law", because then we will first promote this process if it is natural aging, and secondly we may fall into the trap of ignoring other factors that are at most indirectly related to age.

Psychological problems, medication, complaints of metabolism and blood circulation, depression, stress and loneliness are also possible triggers for “age-related absent-mindedness”. Improper nutrition can also cause supposedly age-related problems with short-term memory.

Age or social environment?

For example, when people retire, many people lose the habitual daily rhythm that the synapses in the brain have focused on. Stimuli to activate patterns in the synapses such as the daily conversations with colleagues in the workplace are eliminated.

If, for example, a pensioner in his mid-60s forgets what day of the week it is or does not remember a conversation he had the previous week, this may also be due to the fact that the saved patterns in the synapses are missing key points to take action to kick. At work it was necessary to know whether it was Monday or Sunday, if it was “Sunday” every day, it hardly matters.

If an old person increasingly forgets what he wanted to do, it can also be because he has conditioned himself in his life's tasks and the brain classifies the things undertaken as "not important".

The library grows

So are we getting dumber with age? Linguist Michael Ramscar from Tübingen questions this. According to him, the performance of the brain does not decrease, but the old brain accesses a much larger knowledge store. So it takes more time because it has a large amount of data to process: If someone analyzes three dozen primary and secondary sources for an article, it takes longer than if he only summarizes one book.

According to Ramscar, old people would not be more forgetful, but would have to process an enormous wealth of experience.

At the same time, according to Ramscar, older people can better organize and access existing knowledge. In the study developed by his team, young adults remembered word pairs regardless of whether they made sense or not, while older adults primarily remembered suitable word pairs.

If we assume that the human brain develops as a social organ, the aging processes correspond to the tasks in the phases of life. If the forehead develops until the mid-1920s and attention declines in later years, it corresponds to the needs of young people who "go out into the world".

In other words, the synapses still absorb a lot of new information and form it into patterns that change again and again. Man is not yet fixed in his life path. New experiences are added, he changes his life perspectives. For the elderly, however, the challenge is not so much to gather new experiences again and again, but to organize the experiences already made and to implement them sensibly.

He does not constantly learn new things, but learns from what he has learned. And one lesson is to distinguish the important from the unimportant.

Passing on traditions

This may be a special adaptation of the primate brain. Grandmothers and grandfathers also play an important role in group cohesion with primates other than humans. They no longer produce offspring themselves, but pass on their knowledge to the children and maintain traditions.

The knowledge stored in the old primate brain and the extreme receptivity of the young primate brain therefore went hand in hand. There are old females and males who help shape the “upbringing” of the young not only in humans, but also in gorillas, green vervet monkeys or rhesus macaques.

These peculiarities of the brains of old people play a special role in humans. Human societies exist to a large extent through the passing on of information. Humans reproduce to a large extent spiritually. In many indigenous cultures, "in the forecourt of death" is considered to be the one who passes on the tradition: only now, when he can no longer produce physical offspring, does he pass on his "spiritual seed".

Indirect effects of age

The human brain is not an isolated organ, and “age-related signs of wear and tear” of the brain are often only indirectly related to age. First, old people are susceptible to diseases that can affect the brain but are not, in a narrow sense, complaints to the brain itself; on the other hand, the social environment and training play an important role.

The brain needs training, and experiences stored in the subconscious are only activated when there is a stimulus to do so. The more intensive our social relationships are, the more we can tie in with saved patterns and also develop new patterns in old age.

A problem for many older people is that they are increasingly socially isolated. But if you sit lonely in your apartment and look at the photo wallpaper, you will inevitably get less social input than someone who is persuaded by diverse friendships, acquaintances, partners and relatives to "strain their brains". But that has little to do with biological age.

If physical complaints now appear in old age, this increases the "aging process" of the brain. It is no longer easy to get on your bike and take a lap through the city park.

If the everyday stimuli of the environment no longer exist, perceptions and spurs of the brain lie idle: the scent of apple blossoms on the river bank, the rain on the face, the sound of muddy earth on the shoes, also the occasionally overheard conversations by the joggers, the casual conversation with a neighbor who walks her dog. The brain receives fewer sensory stimuli and starves to death in the long run. This is not due to the biological age, but to the living conditions.

Then old people suffer more from blood circulation and metabolism problems, and since the brain depends on blood and the body's own substances, hormones and vitamins, such problems have a direct impact on its performance. Older people also often have trouble sleeping. Irregular sleep, sleep deprivation, or sleep problems also decrease brain performance.

Brain training

The bookstores are overflowing with pseudo-scientific guides that we would only use 10% of our brains for, combined with brainwashing how we could develop "super brains" if we only followed factually religious instructions.

That's nonsense. The human brain is never inactive, not even during sleep, and the areas of the brain are underutilized. So it is important how we use the active brain anyway. For old people, social relationships are essential: Our brains relate to other people and learn from communication with other people to shape this learning experience.

It is very important to develop meaningful life concepts in old age. "Brain aging" can also be a reaction to senselessness. This is not a charitable concern, but rather concrete biological facts: the brain releases neurotransmitters, which means that old structures dissolve and new solutions become possible. When an old person leaves work, the brain works on a new information and data network. However, if there are not enough new stimuli now, only a few patterns are necessary that we access.

The following applies: The brain can be changed through training, the social environment and the external environment - at any age. These factors relate to each other. A person can train his brain in everyday life simply by looking for unusual experiences. They can be very banal, for example choosing a new route for a daily walk or drinking your coffee in a bar where it has never been before.

The social environment is existential for brain performance in old age. If other people show us positive feelings, we get friendly feedback and honest interest, then our dopamine level rises. If we are doing well, the brain will form new networks. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

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Video: Functional brain training (August 2022).