Conference Coverage

Modest cognitive changes deemed inherent in ‘normal’ aging

Interventions leading to improved gray matter volume tied to reducing dementia risk



CRYSTAL CITY, VA. – As technology advances and the population becomes older, clinicians should understand how modest age-related declines in cognition affect older adults’ ability to learn new technological skills, Philip D. Harvey, PhD, said at Focus on Neuropsychiatry presented by Current Psychiatry and the American Academy of Clinical Psychiatrists.

A health care provider attends to an elderly woman ©AlexRaths/

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of adults in the United States above age 65 is slated to increase over the next several decades, and by 2030, one in five adults in the United States will be at retirement age. By 2050, “a significant number of people” in the United States are expected to be age 90, Dr. Harvey said at the meeting, presented by Global Academy for Medical Education.

“What we need to do is to understand what are the normal things that happen to people as they become 90 years of age,” said Dr. Harvey, of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Miami.

Within the technology industry, significant advancements were made over the last 40 years with the advent of the personal computer in the 1980s, mobile phones in the 1990s, and wireless Internet, smartphones, and wireless devices in the 2000s. Many interactions that used to be person-to-person are now performed online, and it is feasible for a 90-year-old living today to never have encountered this technology during their careers. “Utilizing technology is a central requirement for independent living today,” Dr. Harvey said.

Most people passively adapt to these new changes in technology. However, Dr. Harvey noted that adults in their 80s and 90s who are retired can have difficulty using or learning about new technology as they age. “Human-technology interaction involves information processing, and places demands on memory and other cognitive abilities,” he said. “Age is associated with declines specifically in the kind of abilities that are required to master new technology.”

Learning about and using technology requires different elements of cognition that include different types of memory, such as working, episodic, declarative, procedural, semantic, long-term factual, and emotional. A decline in any of those kinds of memory could result in failures in forgetting, learning or recalling material, and learning new motor skills, among other problems. Crystallized intelligence is more likely to be retained over time, but fluid cognition in the form of processing speed, working and episodic memory, and the ability to solve abstract problems tend to decline over time as people age, Dr. Harvey said.

Base cognitive abilities do play a role in how crystallized and fluid cognition decline over time. For example, while vocabulary might increase as one ages, a person’s working memory, processing speed, and episodic memory decline over time. Evidence also suggests that speed training and exercise appear to improve cognition. In the ACTIVE trial, 2,832 adults with a baseline age of 73.6 years who underwent 10 cognitive training sessions to improve memory showed better cognitive scores that remained at 10-year follow-up (J Am Geriatr Soc. 13 Jan 2014. doi: 10.1111/jgs.12607).

Cyrus Raji, MD, PhD, and colleagues also explored the relationship between caloric expenditure and gray matter volume in the Cardiovascular Health Study, and found that exercise of various types improved gray matter volume and reduced the risk of dementia in people aged 65 or older. Furthermore, Dr. Raji and colleagues found, caloric expenditures, rather than intensity of exercise, may alone predict increases in gray matter volume (J Alzheimers Dis. 2016. doi: 10.3233/JAD-160057).

“If you want to improve your memory, grow your hippocampus,” Dr. Harvey said at the meeting.

Dr. Harvey reported serving as a consultant for Alkermes, Boehringer-Ingelheim, Lundbeck, Otsuka Digital Health, Sanofi, Sunovion Pharmaceuticals, Takeda, and Teva. He also reported receiving a grant from Takeda, and is the founder and CSO of i-Function.

Global Academy and this news organization are owned by the same parent company.

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