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Chasing Life With Dr. Sanjay Gupta | Does age indicate cognitive ability?

Sanjay Gupta on Age
February 13, 2024

This is a guest post by WWSG exclusive speaker, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

A lot has been made about age recently, in light of the upcoming presidential election. But how much does someone’s age indicate their cognitive ability?

Both 81-year-old President Joe Biden and 77-year-old former President Donald Trump have a history of speaking blunders. Most recently, Biden referenced dead European leaders and confused the presidents of Mexico and Egypt. In January, Trump stumbled and mixed up Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

But these kinds of slipups aren’t very telling when it comes to broader problems of cognition or memory, experts say.

“We’re not able to [assess cognition] just by observing someone speaking in public. That would require a very thorough investigation,” said Dr. Molly Mather, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Dr. Angela Roberts, an assistant professor of communication sciences and computer science at Western University who researches aging and speech signatures that detect cognitive decline, says that “mixing up names or having difficulty retrieving names, especially if the names are similar in their structure or if you’re linking two people together in your mind, is not necessarily unusual as we get older.”

As we age, a decline in cognitive abilities is to be expected — including slower word and name recall, difficulty with multitasking and decreases in attention span. According to the National Institute on Aging, natural changes happen in parts of the brain related to learning and other complex mental activities, the connection between neurons may be less effective, and blood flow may decrease. On top of that, our abilities to think and perform can be influenced by things like stress, sleep and day-to-day distractions.

However, certain “crystallized abilities” improve with age. This comprises knowledge that comes from learning and experiences, such as vocabulary and knowledge of how to do things, Roberts said.

A battery of tests can help doctors assess whether someone indeed has cognitive issues outside of normal aging, but they would also need assessments from friends and family about any changes that have happened over time. In addition, brain imaging and other medical tests, including bloodwork, would be needed to rule out other factors that could lead to worsening cognition, such as infections or vitamin deficiencies.

“It is valid for voters to be concerned about people who have large amounts of power having intact cognitive functioning. As people age, probabilistically, the risk for certain types of decline do increase,” Mather said. “But there is really such variability as people age. I think it’s unfair in many ways to assume the worst.”

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