The elderly may be not be as good at playing
football or remembering where they put the car keys. But they make
up for loss of physical prowess and memory skills by developing
greater wisdom – and that's official, a leading researcher on
elderly cognition told the Royal College of Psychiatrists'
International Congress in Edinburgh.
New research shows that the slowing down of
the elderly brain provides the opportunity to
develop of wisdom. Furthermore, their ability to learn new skills,
such as juggling, remains undiminished – as shown by MRI (magnetic
resonance imaging) scans.
Professor Dilip Jeste of the University of
California, San Diego, reported on a series of studies on 3000 San
Diego residents, aged between 60 and 100. He said that wisdom, a
uniquely human mix of intelligence and spirituality, may be
hard-wired as an evolutionary tool to extend lifespan.
He told the Congress: “The fact that older
people are slower to respond than younger people is widely seen as
a disadvantage. But that’s not always the case. The elderly brain
is less dopamine-dependent, making people less impulsive and
controlled by emotion. Older people also less likely to respond
thoughtlessly to negative emotional stimuli because their brains
have slowed down compared to younger people. This, in fact is what
we call wisdom.”
Professor Jeste continued: “Probably the most
exciting breakthrough in the last decade has been the finding that
neuroplasticity, the ability to generate neurones and synapses,
continues throughout an individual’s life. MRI scans have also
identified the four regions of the brain that contribute to wisdom
(the amygdala and the left prefrontal cortex, the medial prefrontal
cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), with older people
demonstrating a higher level of activity between these regions than
He said that older people should gain
confidence from the knowledge that they can become sharper and
develop new skills in older age. “We know from structural MRIs that
the brain’s hardware changes when people take up juggling. Within
three months, studies show that there is a significant change in
the structure of the brain in the region that involves perceptual
anticipation,” he said.
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International Congress of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Edinburgh, 21-24 June 2010.