The York University Magazine

Fall 2015

The alumni magazine of York University

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of countries studied, due to an old-age poverty rate of 4.4 per cent. "One of the biggest myths about the increasing number of older adults is that they are going to bankrupt the system," says Daly. "That hasn't hap- pened in Sweden, where 20 per cent of the population is considered among the oldest old (that is, people over 85). It's one of the oldest countries in the world and they do a very good job of housing older adults. They don't warehouse them, they wrap care around them." Daly says that if she were a woman of 85 in Ontario today, she'd be nervous about going into long-term care. "We haven't put enough resources in place to ensure facilities are safe and secure. They are also not stimulating envi- ronments. I personally don't believe I would eat healthily enough, be stimulated enough or be safe enough. In Ontario alone, there have been 29 homicides in long-term care facilities between 2002 and 2012. And the most recent Canadian Institutes for Health Research data we have suggests that nearly 50 per cent of residents who live in Ontario's long-term care facili- ties are classed either as aggressive or very aggressive." It isn't just the old who are at risk in such facilities. It's the staff, too. Daly also studies work issues around institu- tional care, including the lot of front- line caregivers. "These are workers that tend to be the lowest paid and work in conditions that are more challenging than those of most other health-care workers," she says. "The end of life is a time people should be protected, and I don't think we're doing a very good job in Canada of either protecting the workers or the residents." Daly says current health-care policies for the old in Ontario expect a great deal from families and people's own networks of friends and acquaintances. "Right now, I think our long-term care system is premised on this notion of individual responsibility instead of sharing risk." Brain Behaviour G A RY T U R N E R I S A Faculty of Health professor, psychologist and member of YU-CARE whose research focuses on cognitive aging, stroke and stroke recovery. Turner's angle on graceful aging is trying to understand how the brain changes as we get older and how these changes impact our cognitive abilities. There are two main ways of thinking about that, he says. One is to look at the brain at work and the other is to look at the actual structure of the brain itself. Turner says researchers know the brain naturally loses volume as we get older. "It sounds negative, but it is a biologi- cal fact. It's a natural progression but it isn't even – that is, not all parts of the brain change at the same rate." Although the brain does gradually lose volume, that doesn't always mean a change in cognitive function. Researchers like Turner have found the brain has a natural capacity to adapt. Areas not normally associated with a specific function can take on new jobs if other parts of the brain become dam- aged by disease or weakened through the natural aging processes. Turner is intrigued by what's called "executive function" (EF), our brain's more com- plex cognitive functioning processes which involve things like planning. In young brains, says Turner, EF is necessary to deal with the continuous parade of novel experiences that are part of young adulthood. At that age, there is a relatively limited repertoire of stored knowledge, so younger brains naturally have to problem solve more often and more rapidly. Not so for older brains. As you age, you naturally build up a store of experi- ences and knowledge that you can draw from, so relying on EF is not as much of a priority. You become more likely to act and think in comfortable, or predictable, ways. The brain's networks that are involved in EF are not as taxed, meaning those networks are also not exercised as much as they were when we were young. Turner says, in terms of brain function, it's a case of "if you don't use it, you lose it." If your behaviour is guided by a treasure trove of stored knowledge, it's very efficient. Think, for example, about the effort involved in shopping in a grocery store you know well ver- sus one you don't. But there are tradeoffs. As we age, EF naturally falls off, even in healthy aging brains. We come to rely more on our stored knowledge and experiences. "That scenario is fine as long as your environment remains predictable," says Turner, "but when things change and you have to go back to problem solving, it's a little more challenging." TURNER'S ANGLE ON GRACEFUL AGING IS TRYING TO UNDERSTAND HOW THE BRAIN CHANGES AS WE GET OLDER Fall 2015 The York University Magazine 17

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