April 16, 2009
Young and forgetful
Declining mental health is not a prerogative of the old. A new study has found that mental flexibility decreases relatively early in adulthood
We usually associate declining mental function with old age. However, a recent study of more than 2,000 healthy educated adults between the ages of 18 and 60 suggests that certain aspects of brain function actually begin their decline in young adulthood.
Researcher Timothy A. Salthouse, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville who led the study, said that the results do not mean that young adults need to start worrying about their memories.
However, the research found that certain mental functions - including measures of abstract reasoning, mental speed and puzzle-solving - began to dull as early as age 27 while dips in memory generally became apparent around age 37.
The good news? There were indications that accumulated knowledge - like performance on vocabulary tests and general knowledge - kept improving with age.
The findings were published in the journal Neurobiology Of Aging.
'These patterns suggest that some types of mental flexibility decrease relatively early in adulthood, but that how much knowledge one has and the effectiveness of integrating it with one's abilities, may increase throughout all of adulthood if there are no pathological diseases,' Prof Salthouse said.
The study participants took standard tests of memory, reasoning and perception at the outset and at some point over the next seven years.
The tests are designed to detect subtle changes in mental function and involve solving puzzles, recalling words and details from stories, and identifying patterns in collections of letters and symbols.
Prof Salthouse and his colleagues found that certain aspects of cognition generally started to decline in the late-20s to 30s.
The researchers said these findings shed light on normal age-related changes in mental function which could aid in understanding the process of dementia.
Prof Salthouse said: 'By following individuals over time, we gain insight to cognition changes and may possibly discover ways to alleviate or slow the rate of decline.
'By better understanding the processes of cognitive impairment, we may become better at predicting the onset of dementia such as Alzheimer's disease.'
Certain mental functions begin to dull as early as age 27