The Institute of Medicine has recently released a report entitled Cognitive Aging: Progress in Understanding and Opportunities for Action. This special report addresses “the emerging concept of cognitive aging, the importance of this issue for the nation’s public health, and actions the nation needs to take to better understand and maintain the cognitive health of older adults.” The report emphasizes that “cognitive aging is not a disease or a quantifiable level of dysfunction. It is distinct from Alzheimer disease and other neurocognitive and psychiatric disorders that affect older adults’ cognitive health, so it is best measured and studied longitudinally among adults who are free of these disorders.”
The IOM report highlights that the “health care systems and health care professionals will play a key role in educating patients and their families about cognitive aging and in implementing interventions to ensure optimal cognitive health across the life cycle. The committee noted the importance of programs to avoid delirium associated with medications or hospitalizations. Educating the patient and family members should include these clear messages: the brain ages, just like other parts of the body; cognitive aging is not a disease; cognitive aging is different for every individual (there is wide variability across persons of similar age); some cognitive functions improve with age and neurons are not dying as in Alzheimer disease (hence, realistic hope is inherent in cognitive aging); and patients can take certain steps to help protect their cognitive health.
According to the IOM report, cognitive aging is not a disease, but it is a major public health issue. Despite the public health importance of cognitive aging, there is limited research available on this process. “Patients are already concerned. The time has come for physicians, other health care professionals, and researchers to enter the conversation with them.”