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The Aging Mind: Opportunities in Cognitive Research
positive effects on cognitive function have been reported in response to antioxidants and to behavioral interventions, such as exercise and training (e.g., Jama et al., 1996; Paleologos et al., 1998; Albert et al., 1995; Kramer et al., 1999). Such findings are suggesting many new possibilities for effective intervention to improve cognitive function in older people.
Much remains unknown, however, about how great the potential is to avoid serious decline in cognitive performance as part of what has been called "usual aging" (Rowe and Kahn, 1998). Little is known about the mechanisms that explain these provocative findings or about how they might be turned into effective interventions to improve human lives.
Now is a time of great promise for learning more about the aging mind and for turning that knowledge to the advantage of aging individuals. Neuroscientists are making rapid progress in understanding the neural basis of sensation, memory, language, and other cognitive functions and are poised to understand, at the molecular and cellular levels, those neural changes that affect the life course of cognitive capabilities. The time is right for developing intervention strategies to maintain the integrity of neuronal function and to rescue and repair malfunctioning neurons. Behavioral researchers are making rapid progress in classifying types of cognitive functioning, measuring them, tracking changes in particular functions over the life cycle, and documenting declines, maintenance, and improvement in these functions over the life span. This research is making it possible to develop behavioral and technological interventions to maintain cognitive performance in older individuals. Researchers in cognitive science are developing detailed models and theories of cognitive processes that can help make sense of observed patterns of change in functioning and link them to observed changes in neural systems. Social scientists are demonstrating the significance of cultural supports and life experiences in shaping cognitive content and processes over the life span.
Much valuable and promising research is already going on in each of these fields of research related to the aging mind. However, the fields do not communicate with each other as much as is probably desirable. Neuroscientists may document a positive or negative neural change but often do not use behavioral tests to determine whether such change makes a difference to the behaving organism. Behavioral researchers may clarify changes in function but often do not investigate the biological basis for the changes. We believe that, given the current state of knowledge, much can be learned from studies with both humans and experimental animals that link recent advances in some of these fields to unresolved problems in other fields. This volume describes a set of highly promising research opportunities—areas in which research over the next several years is likely to yield major advances.