It has long been believed that growing older leads to a decline in mental abilities, but new research suggests some abilities may actually improve.
The findings indicate two key brain functions, which allow people to attend to new information and to focus on what is important in a given situation, can get better in older individuals.
These functions are key to critical aspects of cognition such as memory, decision making and self-control, and even navigation, maths, language, and reading.
Senior investigator Michael Ullman is a professor in the department of neuroscience at Georgetown University Medical Centre, and director of Georgetown’s Brain and Language Lab.
He said: “These results are amazing, and have important consequences for how we should view ageing.
“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 ageing, likely because we simply practice these skills throughout our life.
“This is all the more important because of the rapidly aging population, both in the US and around the world.”
He added that with further research it may be possible to deliberately improve these skills as protection against brain decline in healthy ageing and disorders.
Researchers looked at three separate components of attention and executive function in a group of 702 participants aged 58 to 98 – the ages when cognition often changes the most during ageing.
The components they studied are the brain networks involved in alerting, orienting, and executive inhibition.
Each has different characteristics and relies on different brain areas and different neurochemicals and genes.
Alerting is characterised by a state of enhanced vigilance and preparedness in order to respond to incoming information.
Orienting involves shifting brain resources to a particular location in space.
While the executive network inhibits distracting or conflicting information, allowing people to focus on what’s important.
First author Joao Verissimo, an assistant professor at the University of Lisbon, Portugal, said: “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 found that only alerting abilities declined with age, and both orienting and executive inhibition actually improved.
Prof Verissimo said: “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.
Prof Ullman added: “The findings not only change our view of how ageing affects the mind, but may also lead to clinical improvements, including for patients with ageing disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.”
The findings are published in Nature Human Behaviour.