Aging, with practice, certain brain functions may continue to improve.
Computer tests of attention and the ability to focus revealed that older adults declined in only one out of three key brain functions.
Two of the three functions improved during aging, at least until the mid-to-late 70s.
Older adults may find that it takes longer to remember a fact or learn a new skill.
The risk of dementia rises with aging: the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease doubles about every 5 years beyond age 65.
But cognitive skills that require constant practice, such as understanding and using language, are usually well preserved.
A team led by Dr. João Veríssimo from the University of Lisbon in Portugal and Dr. Michael Ullman from Georgetown University studied more than 700 older adults aged 58 to 98.
The participants were part of the Social Environment and Biomarkers of Aging Study in Taiwan, which explored the relationship between life challenges and mental, physical, and cognitive health in older age.
In one part of the study, people took computerized tests of three aspects of attention.
The first was being prepared to respond to incoming information (alerting).
The second was moving attention to a particular location (orienting).
The third was executive control—the ability to ignore distractions and focus on the task at hand.
The researchers measured differences in these three abilities between participants across the age range they studied.
They adjusted for factors such as sex, education, and visual abilities.
Overall, increasing age was associated with slower response times.
Aging was also associated with less alertness to incoming information.
However, the other two aspects of attention studied showed improvements with age.
Older participants had increased efficiency in their ability to orient attention toward different objects.
The ability to orient attention increased steadily from middle age into older adulthood.
They were also better at ignoring distractions than younger participants.
The ability to ignore distractions and focus on relevant information increased into the mid-to-late 70s, then declined.
However, the gains from earlier old age were substantial enough so that even the oldest adults were no worse at ignoring distractions than the youngest.
The improvements found in brain functions may have benefits for higher-level cognitive abilities, such as decision-making and long-term memory.
The study was funded in part by NIH’s National Institute on Aging (NIA). Results were published on August 19, 2021, in Nature Human Behaviour.
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Evidence that ageing yields improvements as well as declines across attention and executive functions
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