In a wide-ranging report released Tuesday morning, the Institute of Medicine -- the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences -- recommends that you relax a bit. Everything ages, even your brain. There are things you can do, and disaster is most likely not around the corner.
"Cognitive functioning in older adults can improve in some areas, such as those related to wisdom and experience, and [it] can decline in others, such as memory, attention and speed of processing," the panel of experts wrote. "Individuals vary widely in the specific cognitive changes that occur with age, in the nature and extent of cognitive aging, as well as in the ways these changes affect daily life."
Which isn't to say that you can't fight back or that the world around you shouldn't adapt as a growing population of older folk copes with aging brains. "Cognitive decline affects not only the individual, but also his or her family and community, and an array of health, public health, social, and other services may be required to provide necessary assistance and support," the panel wrote.
Such as? Financial institutions may need to take a more active role in helping older people manage their money and protect against the $3 billion in financial fraud and abuse committed against older people each year. Transportation departments may need to take into account slower decision-making and processing speeds of older drivers when they lay out or improve road systems.
But overall, cognitive decline that is not part of Alzheimer's disease or other recognized dementias can be addressed in a fairly substantial number of ways -- by individuals, their health-care providers and society in general, the report notes.
"Some of the changes that one observes doesn't mean that it's all over, gloom and doom," said Kristine Yaffe, a professor in the University of California, San Francisco's Department of Psychiatry, Neurology and Epidemiology, and vice-chair of the committee that wrote the report.
The recommendations include:
• Individuals should remain physically active; work to minimize risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes and smoking; regularly review health conditions and medications that affect cognitive health; stay socially and intellectually active; get adequate sleep; make sure that doctors are aware of medications they are taking that might cause delirium in the case of a hospitalization.
(In a separate study also released Tuesday morning, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health showed that memory centers in the brains of people who took part in a two-year program of "meaningful and social activities" did not shrink as they normally would, according to a news release from the school. In men, the memory centers actually grew "modestly.")
Individuals also should stop wasting money on supplements and vitamins. The panel found "no evidence" that any of them improve cognitive functioning despite many claims to the contrary, said Dan Blazer, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center and chair of the panel.
• Doctors, health-care providers and public health agencies need to improve their understanding of normal cognitive aging and its differences from diseases, such as dementia; and promote discussion of cognitive decline, what causes it and how to combat it.
The committee also called for public education campaigns, more research, an easily navigable Web site with appropriate information and adaptation of technology to help aging adults meet the needs posed by cognitive aging.
With 87 percent of older adults saying in one survey that staying mentally sharp is a top priority, "the committee hopes that a commitment to addressing cognitive aging by many sectors of society will bring about further effective interventions, a greater understanding of risk and protective factors, and a society that values and sustains cognitive health," the panel wrote.