Too many average people are not aware that mental decline in the elderly can be prevented

Dear Editor,

Mental abilities are supposed to decline as we age. This premise is often used as a fact drawn from statistics which malign an entire generation. But is this true for everyone? It is true that mental ability can decline with age. In fact, many things happen to us as we age. Ten or twenty percent of the population will develop some neurological disability which, as a side effect, can produce a mental decline.

But eighty percent will never suffer from these disabilities. Still, because of the way statistics can be manipulated, the healthy majority is stuck with an underserved stigma. The tragedy is that half of this healthy majority does suffer from mental disorientation, but for reasons that have nothing to do with chemistry or age.

This is the decline imposed upon our older population because on retirement they abandon the skills they have taken thirty or forty years to acquire; and because they no longer use their brains in a demanding environment, they have lost some of those abilities.  This decline can be prevented. Some choose a second career, while others turn life–long hobbies into profitable businesses. The problem is too many are unable, unwilling, or unprepared to find meaningful outlets after retirement, and end up sliding into a decline that could be avoided. Concrete evidence that mental decline can be prevented or reversed does exist. In a study in the United States, the inductive reasoning and spatial orientation of 229 adult volunteers between the ages of 65-75 were studied on two occasions, first in 1970 and again in 1984. To no one’s surprise more than half of this group scored poorly on the second test in 1984, indicating a significant decline in mental ability with age.

Subsequently, and bearing in mind that the young person was then aged 78, everyone in the group took a rigorous series of mental improvement exercises designed to re-sharpen those mental skills. The entire group was then retested. aThe new results were very much a surprise. Many of the forty-seven percent, who had shown no mental decline, improved their scores and sixty percent of those who had scored poorly were able to improve or match the scores they had recorded in 1970. Twenty percent showed no improvement suggesting some form of neurological disorder. The improvement in scores seemed to have no relationship to age, income or education.

Such studies provide evidence of something many of us know intuitively, either from our personal experience and relationships with older people or from observing those public personalities who refuse to quit-the Pablo Casals, Andre Segovias and Bertrand Russels. Sadly for all of us, too many average people are not aware that mental decline can be prevented and that lack of sound pre-retirement planning can cause much unnecessary damage to formerly productive citizens.

Yours faithfully,
George L Munroe
Executive Member
Canadian College of
Health Service Executives