Remembering new information or learning a new skill gets harder as we get older, but thankfully, some brain functions don’t head south over time.
The good news is the cognitive skills that we use every day, such as understanding and using language, are usually well preserved. And the good news about your brain doesn’t stop here.
In surprising new research, scientists have discovered that some cognitive skills are not only retained but they can get better over time. Here’s what you need to know…
There are many examples of people who are sharp as a tack well into their nineties, so the assumption that all brain functions deteriorate with the passage of years is certainly not the case. This is also borne out by research.
For instance, even when an area of the brain displays clear decline with aging, the science shows that same brain region can also display cognitive gains, depending on the mental task involved.
To explore this more thoroughly, scientists tested the theory that certain cognitive skills used throughout life can improve, and these gains may be large enough to outweigh the neural decline of certain brain regions.
The skills the researchers tested were three aspects of attention: alerting, orienting and executive inhibition. Let’s take a closer look at what they are and how they change with aging.
Three Cognitive Functions Critical for Driving
Alerting is a state of enhanced vigilance and preparedness so that incoming information can be effectively responded to. Meanwhile, orienting involves shifting brain resources to a particular location in space. While executive inhibition allows us to focus on what’s important and not get distracted by other inputs.
First author of the new study, João Veríssimo, explains further, saying, “We use all three processes constantly. For example, when you are driving a car, alerting is your increased preparedness when you approach an intersection. Orienting occurs when you shift your attention to an unexpected movement, such as a pedestrian. And executive function allows you to inhibit distractions such as birds or billboards so you can stay focused on driving.”
The study included 702 participants between the ages of 58 and 98. Each one took a computerized test on three aspects of attention. The researchers then adjusted the findings to account for various influencing factors such as gender, education, and visual abilities.
On the negative side, the results showed that, with increasing age, response times slowed, and participants were less alert to incoming information. However, the results also revealed that other aspects of brain function got better with age.
Critical Elements of Attention Improve
Ability to orient attention toward different objects increased steadily from middle age into late age.
The researchers also noted an improved ability to ignore distractions and focus on relevant information. This increased up to the late 70s before declining. Even so, the previous gains were so substantial, even the oldest of old were as good at ignoring distractions as the youngest participants.
Since executive control and orienting skills are intricately involved in daily tasks and support higher-level cognitive abilities, ranging from navigation and language, to reasoning and decision-making, this led an upbeat Dr. Veríssimo to say, “If we’re right and this is about experience and practice, then this means that general mental activity and engagement can perhaps counter the effects of aging. This is very optimistic for everyone.”
Senior author Michael Ullman was equally enthusiastic, saying, “These results are amazing and have important consequences for how we should view aging.
“People have widely assumed that attention and executive functions decline with age…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.”
The researchers believe that targeting these functions could help protect against overall cognitive decline during aging.