Brain changes may cause elderly to speak imprudently

By Tom Nordlie • Published: January 17th, 2008
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

What was Grandpa Joe thinking?

Sure, that salesman is overweight.

But addressing him as “butterball”? That’s just wrong.

If you’ve ever heard an elderly relative make blatantly rude comments, you might wonder how someone you love could be so small-minded.

Ironically, small-mindedness might be the problem. Literally.

A review article in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science suggests brain shrinkage can lead elderly people to say inappropriate things.

As we age, our brains atrophy, particularly the frontal lobes. They’re responsible for controlling thoughts and behaviors.

This might reduce our ability to inhibit unwanted thoughts, and increase the chances we’ll act on them.

So far, there’s not much research investigating how brain atrophy affects social functioning.

But there are studies showing elderly people have more difficulty screening their thoughts than younger people do.

One study showed older adults were more likely to ask about private matters in public, even though both groups agreed in principle that it’s important to handle such things discreetly.

There’s at least a partial solution to this foot-in-mouth problem, says the author.

Older people typically screen their thoughts more effectively early in the day, and might want to schedule important social events in the morning.

Another point to consider… diminished ability to screen thoughts can be a symptom of dementia.

So even though you want to forgive and forget Grandpa Joe’s gaffes, it’s better to insist he see a doctor.

If there’s nothing serious going on, it might make that embarrassment a little easier to take.