Jokes about the age of Joe Biden bring attention to the challenges that older politicians may encounter.
Although there were no charges brought against Joe Biden, today was not a good day for him. The investigation conducted by Robert Hur, the special counsel at the Department of Justice, revealed a damaging official report on the mishandling of classified documents by the US president.
Hur’s characterization of 81-year-old Biden as an “elderly man with a weak memory” and “declining mental abilities due to old age” sparked a strong response from the White House.
The recent event has brought attention to the delicate subject of elderly politicians and the dangers associated with having leaders who are well past the typical retirement age in most countries. It is a harsh reality that even the brain is not immune to the physical effects of aging, although the extent of decline can differ greatly.
Brain imaging throughout the course of a human’s life indicates fluctuations in brain volume. As an individual reaches adulthood, the brain begins to decrease in size due to the loss of grey and white matter. Grey matter primarily consists of brain cells, while white matter is composed of nerve fiber bundles that facilitate connections between neurons and form functional brain networks.
As individuals age, their brain volume decreases gradually, but this process tends to accelerate in their 70s or 80s. However, in cases of dementia, this decline occurs at a faster pace.
As we age, even in cases of healthy aging, there are consequences of brain shrinkage. According to Professor Tara Spires-Jones from the UK Dementia Research Institute at the University of Edinburgh, a decrease in brain matter can impact cognition due to the loss of neurons and connections between them. This can result in a less efficient network as we age.
We do not lose a significant amount of neurons, but there is a loss of connections between them in different areas of the brain. This likely contributes to a decline in our cognitive abilities.
There is no significant decrease in overall mental ability. Evaluations of memory and thinking skills reveal a more complex situation. Individuals differ greatly, but overall knowledge tends to remain stable. In fact, vocabulary often continues to improve after reaching retirement age.
Several other abilities decline with age. Working memory, which involves tasks like recalling phone numbers, tends to diminish. It becomes more challenging for individuals to absorb new information. As people get older, their brains tend to operate at a slower pace.
As people age, they may struggle to retrieve information from their memory. Even though the information is stored in the brain, it can become more difficult to access in older age. This can be observed in situations like when an older team competes against a younger team on University Challenge, according to Dennis Chan, a consultant neurologist and professor at University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. “You can hear the older individuals groaning because they know the answer, but they are unable to recall it,” he explains.
In his 345-page report, Hur mentions Biden’s memory in a negative way, suggesting it would be difficult to convince a jury that Biden was aware of his mistake. He speculates that Biden’s lawyers would likely emphasize the “limitations” of his memory.
As we get older, our ability to pay attention and concentrate on a specific thought or task tends to decrease. Have you ever experienced walking into the kitchen and forgetting why you went there? Or misplacing your car keys? Or accidentally putting the milk in the cereal cupboard instead of the fridge? These types of lapses become more frequent as we age, although there could be other factors contributing to them aside from cognitive decline.
“It is more likely to occur as you age due to increased responsibilities and concerns,” Chan explains. “While ageing may play a role, there are other contributing factors such as stress, excessive mental load, or inadequate sleep. It is not always indicative of a pathological condition.”
Although many people may experience a decline in mental health as they age, studies suggest that there are several steps individuals can take to maintain a healthy brain later in life. Medical professionals recommend that practices beneficial for the heart also benefit the brain. This includes avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, following a nutritious diet, and engaging in regular physical activity. These actions promote a healthy cardiovascular system, which is essential for maintaining brain health.
However, it is also important to stimulate the brain. Chan suggests that individuals continue to challenge themselves mentally and engage in frequent social interactions, as these can be mentally taxing. He emphasizes the significance of trying new activities, as they require the brain to form new connections.
According to Chan, engaging in activities that deviate from our usual routines can be more difficult for the brain. However, this challenge can stimulate the growth of new synapses and connections, ultimately benefitting our brain.