Can some mental abilities actually improve during aging?

It’s long been believed that advancing age leads to broad declines in our mental abilities. Now new research offers surprisingly good news by countering this view. 

The findings, published on August 19, 2021, in Nature Human Behaviour, show that 2 key brain functions, which allow us to attend to new information and to focus on what’s important in a given situation, can in fact improve in older individuals. These functions underlie critical aspects of cognition such as memory, decision making, and self-control, and even navigation, math, language and reading. 

Many but not all cognitive abilities decline during ageing. Some even improve due to lifelong experience. The critical capacities of attention and executive functions have been widely posited to decline. However, these capacities are composed of multiple components, so multifaceted ageing outcomes might be expected.

“People have widely assumed that attention and executive functions decline with age, despite intriguing hints from some smaller-scale studies that raised questions about these assumptions,” he says. “But the results from our large study indicate that critical elements of these abilities actually improve during aging, likely because we simply practice these skills throughout our life,” said Michael T. Ullman, PhD, a professor in the Department of NEuroscience, and Director of Georgetown’s Brain and Language Lab. 

The study included 702 participants aged 58 to 98. They focused on these ages since this is when cognition often changes the most during aging, and studied the components of the brain networks involved in alerting, orienting and executive inhibition. Alerting is characterized by a state of enhanced vigilance and preparedness in order to respond to incoming information. Orienting involves shifting brain resources to a particular location in space. The executive network inhibits distracting or conflicting information, allowing us to focus on what’s important.

The study found that only alerting abilities decline with age. In contrast, both orienting and executive inhibition actually improved. The researchers hypothesize that because orienting and inhibition are skills that allow people to selectively attend to objects, these skills can improve with lifelong practice, and that the gains from this practice can be large enough to outweigh the underlying neural declines. They believe that alerting declines because this basic state of vigilance and preparedness cannot improve with practice. 

Ullman says that: “The findings not only change our view of how aging affects the mind, but may also lead to clinical improvements, including for patients with aging disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. 

Source: John Verssimo, Paul Verhaeghen, Noreen Goldman, Maxine Weinstein, Michael T. Ullman. Evidence that ageing yields improvements as well as declines across attention and executive functions. Nature Human Behaviour, 2021.

Georgetown University Medical Center. “Key mental abilities can actually improve during aging.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 19 August 2021.

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