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Where Did Mom's Filter Go?

Ever wondered what possessed your mom to discuss bathroom habits during your last dinner outing? Or why your dad blurted out an opinion about the server's nose ring? They're cringe-worthy moments, but they may be entirely normal as people age.

It's a common perception that older adults have a "faulty filter." Maybe you've heard, "I'm old, and I just say it like it is," or "I don't care what people think." And to some extent, older people can indeed be less concerned about others' opinions. But there may be another culprit behind those untimely comments or overly personal questions: Two new studies have uncovered that shrinkage in the aging brain is responsible for those foot-in-mouth moments.

A study by psychologist William von Hippel of Australia's University of Queensland investigated some of the effects of the natural shrinkage of the frontal cortex as we age. The study included people 18 to 93 years old and utilized psychological testing to test their inhibitory abilities.

"The normal aging process leads to changes in the brain that have social consequences." Hippel said. "These brain changes often do not affect intelligence, but they can affect other aspects of mental functioning, like inhibition. Thus, even older adults who are as sharp as a tack may say things that embarrass or upset us, without intending to do so."

"We all think inappropriate things, and we can't be faulted for that. Perhaps aging just leads us to say more of them, and so perhaps we shouldn't be faulted for that, either," he added.

Another study, led by Dr. Adam Gazzaley of the University of California San Francisco, aimed to determine how well subjects can filter relevant information at different ages. It included individuals 9 to 77 years old who were shown pictures of scenes while undergoing fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to see what parts of their brains were active. Dr. Gazzaley found that in older subjects, discerning relevant information from irrelevant was more difficult. This lack of discernment can lead to an unfortunate tendency to overshare personal information, leading potentially to embarrassing consequences.

How common is this?

These changes are not universal. In Dr. Gazzaley's study, some of the older people performed just as well as the younger subjects.

"There was a sub-population that was able to remember and didn't have suppression deficiency. These people were able to perform like younger subjects," Gazzaley said. “That means that somewhere in here is a clue to successful aging."

How should I react when they say something embarrassing?

Even if you know the science behind the unfiltered moment, it doesn't help you extract yourself and your senior from a squirmy situation. Try these tactics instead:

First, take a breath. Before you react, remind yourself that your mom had a slip and can't be blamed for that.

A gentle word. "Maybe let's talk about something else," or "How about we chat about that later?"

If you see it coming, interrupt/distract. (At restaurant) "Hey, dad, they have great desserts! Which one do you like?"

If necessary, duck back and apologize. "I apologize for my father. He sometimes can't help what he says."

Keep an eye out for changes. Little slips are common with normal aging, but wildly inappropriate or out-of-character behavior could be a sign of early dementia and warrant a consultation with your senior's doctor.

And finally, remember the frontal lobe's decline is not inevitable. Studies show that aerobic exercise is one of the keys to overall cognitive wellness. So, incorporate lots of walks and exercise into your time together so you can both keep your brains young and healthy.

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