The Value of Aging Brains

It’s tempting to think that it’s solely a youngster’s world; that with every new way of doing things, every new device invented and every new trend in pop culture, the aging population gets left behind.

If the neuroscience is to be believed then the aging amongst us still have plenty to contribute, apart from the occasional word of wisdom, old expression, and birthday gifts to our grandchildren!

In fact, aging brains should be a valued asset in all works of life – including business – and this is particularly important as the retirement age creeps up.

The aging process in the brain

Conventional wisdom has always suggested that as we age, our brains decline. We certainly become more susceptible to memory loss and a difficulty in focusing, as well as atrophy, or loss of brain volume. This does impair the ability to think clearly and make good decisions.

But cognitive neuroscience is able to use advanced scanning and imaging to paint a clearer picture of what is going on in our brains as we age; these methods allow neuroscientists to track closely what happens in the brain during particular activities and the neuro-imaging data reveals patterns of change as people age.

The research suggests that scientists may have under-estimated the power of the aging brain.

Instead of going through a gradual decline as we age, the brain retains some ‘plasticity’ or ‘malleability’; this essentially means that our brain can continue to form new neural pathways and ‘reorganise’ itself, recruiting different areas of the brain to perform different tasks. This was previously thought to be possible only for younger brains.

A study by Angela Gutchess, published in Science magazine in October 2014 said the following:

“Cognitive neuroscience has revealed aging of the human brain to be rich in reorganization and change. Neuroimaging results have recast our framework around cognitive aging from one of decline to one emphasizing plasticity… thus we begin to see that aging of the brain, amidst interrelated behavioral and biological changes, is as complex and idiosyncratic as the brain itself, qualitatively changing over the life span.”

Implications for organisations

The aging human brain is a lot more flexible than previously thought; we can learn new ideas, form new habits, and change behaviour; there is no reason therefore that we can’t promote and be involved in change rather than merely get swept along by it as we age.

The secret seems to lie in providing stimulating environments, as we know that even aging brains respond positively to the right external stimulation.

Are senior employees really stuck in their ways? Can they benefit from training, motivation, and stimulation as much as new employees? Perhaps you CAN teach an old dog new tricks?

Some evidence in tests on rodents shows that new learning and stimulating environments increase the survival of new neurons in the brain. This could have far-reaching implications for the environments that we expose the elderly to, and provide reason for consideration about their roles in organisations.

As well as retaining the potential to change and adapt, aging brains have some other advantages over more youthful brains.

A US study by Heather L. Urry and James J. Gross recently demonstrated that aging brains are better able to regulate and control emotions for instance:

“Older age is normatively associated with losses in physical, cognitive, and social domains. Despite these losses, older adults often report higher levels of well-being than do younger adults. How can we explain this enhancement of well-being? Specifically, we propose that older adults achieve well-being by selecting and optimizing particular emotion regulation processes to compensate for changes in internal and external resources.”

So even if cognitive decline does happen in old age, there is the potential of positive effects in social and emotional areas that should be valued and harnessed by organisations.

Instead of focusing on what we lose as we age, such as hearing, vision, and cognitive ability, perhaps we need to investigate more about the positive effects of aging. As the retirement age goes up in the coming years, this could be very important!

The team at NeuroPower is at the forefront of introducing new approaches to organisational development through the findings of neuroscience. We apply them to all types of businesses, developing high performing teams and enhancing leadership. Find out more at our website:


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  • LAAAC is managed by St. Barnabas Senior Services; Funded, in part, by Archstone Foundation.
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