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Experts identify key mental abilities that actually improve with age

A new study from the Georgetown University Medical Center has completely shifted our understanding of how aging affects the mind. The research shows that two key mental abilities, which allow the brain to acquire new information and focus on what is important, can actually improve in older adults. 

Both of these mental abilities help support critical aspects of cognition such as memory, decision making, self-control, and navigation. 

“These results are amazing, and have important consequences for how we should view aging,” said study senior author Dr. Michael T. Ullman.

“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.”

“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.”

Dr. Ullman said that the research is particularly important because of the rapidly aging population, both in the United States and worldwide. He noted that with further research, it may be possible to deliberately improve these skills as protection against cognitive decline.

Focusing on a group of 702 participants aged 58 to 98, the researchers looked at three separate components of attention and executive function. They studied the brain networks involved in alerting, orienting, and executive inhibition. 

Each of these mental abilities has different characteristics and relies on different areas of the brain, neurochemicals, and genes. With this in mind, the experts theorized that the networks may also show different aging patterns.

“We use all three processes constantly,” explained study first author Dr. João Veríssimo. “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 revealed that alerting declined over the course of aging. By contrast, both orienting and executive inhibition improved with age.

The researchers believe that because orienting and inhibition are skills that can improve with lifelong practice. The gains from this practice can be large enough to outweigh the underlying neural declines, they explained. 

“Because of the relatively large number of participants, and because we ruled out numerous alternative explanations, the findings should be reliable and so may apply quite broadly,” said Dr. Veríssimo. Furthermore, he said that since orienting and inhibitory skills underlie numerous behaviors, the results have wide-ranging implications.

The study is published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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