Neuro Surprise: Some Brain Skills Might Improve With Age
There's an old saying, "Age and guile beat youth and exuberance," and new research suggests there might be something to that.
Some key brain functions can improve in people as they age, researchers report, challenging the notion that our mental abilities decline across the board as we grow old.
With increasing age, many people appear to get better at focusing on important matters and ignoring distractions -- tasks that support other critical brain functions like memory, decision making and self-control, the researchers said.
"This suggests we cannot really speak about aging just as leading to declines in a general sense," said lead researcher João Veríssimo, an assistant professor at the University of Lisbon in Portugal. "Maybe we need to talk about the precise mental functions that change with aging."
For this study, Veríssimo's team looked at three components of mental ability in a group of more than 700 Taiwanese people between 58 and 98 years of age:
- Alerting, the enhanced vigilance that triggers one's attention to incoming information.
- Orienting, the ability to shift brain resources to a particular location in our environment.
- Executive inhibition, the ability to ignore distractions to focus on what's important.
"We use all three processes constantly," Veríssimo explained. "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."
Testing showed that only alerting declined with age among study participants. Both orienting and executive function actually improved until a person's mid-to-late 70s.
"Those are the abilities I think we really thought declined the most with age. Some things might be more stable, but the past literature has largely suggested these are particularly impaired with age," said aging expert Angela Gutchess, a professor of psychology at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. "This new data really suggests that's not the case when you look at it more precisely with a larger sample."
Why can these abilities improve even as your brain ages?
Veríssimo's team thinks it might come down to experience. You use skills like orienting and executive inhibition your whole life; it makes sense they would improve with lifelong practice, and might even counter some physical effects of aging on the brain.
"Perhaps the practice or accumulation of knowledge that we have with our mental functions throughout our life, perhaps it can counter these declines," Veríssimo said. "It can lead to the lack of decline and in some cases, according to our results, it may even lead to observable and detectable improvement."
It also might be that the brain is very good at shifting its resources to support the more crucial mental abilities as we age, Gutchess said.
"The brain imaging literature from the past 25 years or so has really opened up how we think about aging," she said. "Even in the face of some behavioral declines, you see that the brain is kind of reorganizing and working in different ways in older adults. There's really malleable, vibrant activity happening under the surface."
If experience is the key factor, then we might be able to more gracefully age by creating exercises that will help us keep our mental processes sharp, Veríssimo said.
"We know that some of these functions do appear to be susceptible to training," he said. "We know that if we train people, they can actually get better. It's conceivable that we could develop targeted interventions that would practice these kind of attentional mechanisms, and this could have downstream effects even for everyday life."
However, a Georgetown University expert said, we also must acknowledge that all good things come to an end.
No matter how strong our experience, eventually age will win out, said Michael Ullman, director of Georgetown's Brain and Language Lab, in Washington, D.C.
"Executive function improves until mid-70s, but after that it seems to decline. We think what's happening is at that point the neurological decline gets faster and faster, and outweighs the previous experience," Ullman said.
The new study was published Aug. 19 in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
Harvard University has more on the importance of executive function in adulthood.
SOURCES: João Veríssimo, PhD, assistant professor, Laboratory of Psycholinguistics, University of Lisbon, Portugal; Michael Ullman, PhD, director, Brain and Language Lab, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.; Angela Gutchess, PhD, professor, psychology, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass.; Nature Human Behaviour, Aug. 19, 2021