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"Few of us, however, make the most of our minds. The body ceases to grow in a few years; but the mind, if we will let it, may grow almost as long as life lasts."

—John Lubbock, The Pleasures of Life


By the end of this chapter, readers will be able to:

  1. Understand the underlying assumptions and key tenets of healthy cognitive aging across the life span.

  2. Describe methodological issues that should be considered in review of research regarding healthy cognitive aging.

  3. Discuss current literature regarding healthy cognitive aging across the life span including basic and higher order cognitive processes.

  4. Describe current theories of healthy cognitive aging.

  5. Identify strategies to assist individuals with the promotion of positive aging including cognitive health.

Clinical Vignette

Bill Thompson is a 75-year-old retired man who has been happily married for 50 years. Bill is in good physical health and has not experienced noteworthy changes in his cognitive abilities. He stays active by swimming 4 days a week, volunteers at a youth center, and regularly socializes with friends and family. Throughout Bill's life, he has been engaged in physically and mentally stimulating activities, such as playing chess, walking his dog in the park every day, and coaching the local youth swim club. Overall, Bill is as mentally sharp as he was when he was younger, and compared with middle-aged adults, his performance on a wide range of neuropsychological assessments is similar. To some, Bill may not fit the stereotypical image of what happens when you age (i.e., forgetful, withdrawn, dependent on others, physically frail). Bill, however, exemplifies healthy cognitive aging.

  1. What is healthy cognitive aging? What characteristics of healthy aging does Bill demonstrate?

  2. What factors impact cognitive health? Which of these factors are seen in Bill's circumstances?

  3. How do older adults develop and maintain healthy cognitive processes across the life span?

What happens to our cognitive abilities as we age? Do we gain new knowledge and information? Do we experience decreases in how fast we mentally process information? Do we perform similarly to younger adults on certain tasks? Surprisingly, the answer to each of these questions is "yes!" You may be wondering how this can be. The answer reflects several essential tenets of cognitive aging that we will discuss in further detail. Historically, it was thought and widely believed that individuals inevitably experience cognitive decline as they age. Furthermore, it was thought these cognitive changes were experienced universally across individuals and across cognitive abilities (e.g., memory, language, decision-making). However, research has found a more complex (and interesting) pattern of results. Healthy cognitive aging does not occur in a vacuum, nor does it start at a specific age. For example, an individual does not wake up on his or her 50th birthday and experience notable cognitive (or physical) changes. Cognitive aging is a process that unfolds over decades. In fact ...

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