Memory Mondays: More Years of Good Cognitive Health for Older Adults

Share this Post

Does turning 65 automatically mean cognitive health will begin to decline?

With the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease, it’s easy to assume that developing dementia – or at the very least, some sort of cognitive impairment – is inevitable. However, new research indicates that men and women typically spend more than 12 years on average in good cognitive health after age 65.

The study explores “cognitive life expectancy,” or how long older adults live with good versus declining brain health. Over the past decade, the good cognitive health timeframe has been expanding.

Meanwhile, cognitive decline occurs in more compressed timeframes later in life. Mild cognitive impairment, or problems with memory or thinking skills, lasts about for years, according to the study. Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease or other related condition, lasts from a year and a half to two years.

And even when cognitive challenges arise, many older adults enjoy an overall sense of well-being, according to additional research.

“The majority of cognitively impaired years are happy ones, not unhappy ones,” said Anthony Bardo, co-author of this study and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky-Lexington.

What’s the reasoning behind these years of good cognitive health for older adults? Kaiser Health News outlines a couple of theories.

Most older adults don’t face cognitive challenges.

Between 20% and 25% of Americans 65 and older have mild cognitive impairment. About 10% have dementia. That’s according to Dr. Kenneth Langa, an expert in the demography of aging and a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan. With advanced age, of course, there are more risks. But all of this translates into more time spent after age 65 in good cognitive health.

Quality of life improvements contribute to an expanded period of good brain health.

Improvements in many areas that impact quality of life may contribute to an expanded period of good cognitive health. Some areas with noteworthy improvements include:

– Education

– Nutrition

Control of hypertension and cholesterol

– Cognitively demanding jobs in middle age

Social engagement later in life

Education, in particular, proves especially important. For example, college graduates can expect to spend more than 80% of their lifetime after age 65 in good cognitive health. That’s according to new research from the University of Southern California and the University of Texas at Austin. People who didn’t complete high school, on the other hand, may spend less than 50% of their senior years with strong cognitive function.

Researchers will continue to explore contributing factors to well-being and positive quality of life in older adults as it relates to cognitive health. But at the root of it all is the concept that cognitive health doesn’t automatically decline at age 65. Older adults likely have several happy, healthy years ahead.