Is it possible that your aging brain is actually improving over time? The answer may be “yes,” at least for a couple of key functions.
Our ability to attend to new information and to focus on the most important things in any given situation may get better with age, according to recent research out of Georgetown University Medical Center.
The findings were published in the scientific journal Nature Human Behavior.
As part of the study, researchers looked at three distinct components of attention and executive function in approximately 700 participants:
- Alerting — a state of enhanced vigilance and preparedness in order to respond to incoming information
- Orienting — the shifting of brain resources to a particular location in space
- Executive inhibition — in which we inhibit distracting or conflicting information, allowing us to focus on what is important
In a press release, study co-author João Veríssimo, an assistant professor at the University of Lisbon, Portugal, says:
“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 researchers studied people between 58 and 98, the years of life when cognition tends to change the most during the aging process. They found that while alerting abilities declined with age, the other two abilities improved.
Those two abilities help us with several key parts of cognition, including:
The researchers say orienting and inhibition appear to be skills that can get better over a lifetime the more they are practiced. By contrast, it appears that alerting — a basic state of vigilance and preparedness — cannot improve with practice.
In the press release, study co-author Michael T. Ullman, a professor in the Georgetown University Department of Neuroscience and director of Georgetown’s Brain and Language Lab, says:
“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.”
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