Some aspects of cognitive function improve with age

  • Scientists generally believe that cognitive functions, including attention, executive function, and reasoning skills, decreases with age.
  • New study challenges this belief and suggests direction and executive functioning improve with age.
  • Researchers suggest that training the brain can help improve cognitive function.

For years, most research has indicated that older people experience a decline in brain function in all areas. However, a new observational study, which appears in Nature Human Behavior, suggests that this may not be true.

The study authors found that instead of seeing a decline in all cognitive functions, older people instead showed improvements in some areas.

According to American Psychological Association, cognitive functioning refers to “the execution of mental processes of perception, learning, memory, comprehension, awareness, reasoning, judgment, intuition and language”.

Cognitive functioning includes executive functions, such as flexible thinking, working memory, and self-control. People with neurological disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), may have deficits in these functions.

The study authors described executive function as:

“The critical set of processes that allow us to focus on selective aspects of information in a targeted manner while ignoring irrelevant information. This set of functions is crucial for everyday life and supports many higher level cognitive abilities.

Researchers have long believed that there is a point when people stop advancing in their cognitive functioning and begin to experience decline.

In particular, some experts consider memory to be one of the most affected brain functions in older people. For example, the author of a review paper on the impact of age on cognition writes:

“The most notable changes in attention that occur with age are performance declines on complex attentional tasks, such as selective or divided attention.”

The latest study paints a less negative picture than other studies. New research shows that older people can improve in some areas.

“People have widely assumed that attention and executive function decline with age, despite intriguing clues from some smaller studies that have raised questions about these assumptions,” says lead author of the study. , Dr. Michael T. Ullman.

Dr Ullman is a professor in the department of neuroscience and director of the brain and language laboratory at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, DC

The researchers studied 702 participants between the ages of 58 and 98. They tested participants for the following three cognitive functions:

  • alert
  • orient
  • executive inhibition

The author of the first study, Dr João Veríssimo, assistant professor at the University of Lisbon, Portugal, describes how these three processes work.

“We use all three processes all the time,” explains Dr Veríssimo. “For example, when you are driving a car, the alert is your increased preparation as you approach an intersection. Orientation occurs when you focus on an unexpected movement, such as a pedestrian. And the executive function lets you prevent distractions, such as birds or billboards, so you can stay focused on driving.

The researchers tested the participants’ functioning using the computerized attention network (ANT) test. The ANT tests how well participants can respond to the target stimulus displayed on the computer screen.

The authors of the study claim that the ANT “simultaneously measures the effectiveness of the three networks”.

While previous studies believed that all three processes decreased with age, researchers found that only alerting abilities decreased. The other two processes – orientation and executive inhibition – improved.

“These results are amazing and have important implications for how we should view aging,” says Dr. Ullman. “But the results of our large study indicate that critical elements of these abilities actually improve as we age, possibly because we simply practice these skills throughout our lives.”

Although the study shows that orientation and execution processes may improve with age, it is possible to help further improve cognitive abilities with certain activities.

Although the present study did not attempt to identify how we might improve cognitive functioning, speaking with Medical News Today, author of the study Dr João Verissimo gave some advice:

“I would say it is more likely that cognitive abilities can be improved through engagement with various and diverse Activities.”

“Together, they can strengthen a range of general skills – perhaps activities such as learning a second language, playing a musical instrument, attending classes, social interaction – in addition to any targeted practice. for specific functions. “

However, he also clarified that while “such interventions show promise” more data is needed.

Talk with MNT On a similar topic, Dr Ullman echoed Dr Veríssimo’s feelings and caution:

“Evidence suggests that one may indeed be able to further train executive inhibitory function with practice – for example, with online applications or programs – although it is still not clear to what extent the improvements are widespread beyond what is formed in the programs. “

He continued, “Thus, it is plausible but uncertain whether one may be able to intentionally improve the executive inhibitory function of aging through targeted practice.”

Scientists will need to do more research to understand exactly what activities will help us keep our brains working at their best over the years.

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