WASHINGTON — Think it’s all downhill for your brain after you hit 50? Think again. Like a fine wine, some mental skills such as concentration and paying attention to detail, believe it or not, actually improve with age.
The exciting discovery could lead to better therapies for Alzheimer’s disease, say scientists.
“These results are amazing, and have important consequences for how we should view aging,” says senior investigator Michael Ullman, PhD, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience at Georgetown University and director of its Brain and Language Lab., in a statement.
The study of hundreds of older people found two key brain functions get better from our 50s onwards. They include attending to new information and focusing on what’s important in a given situation. They underlie memory, decision making and self control, and are even vital in navigation, maths, language and reading.
“People have widely assumed 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,” says Ullman. “This is all the more important because of the rapidly aging population, both in the U.S. and around the world.”
Ullman believes deliberately improving these abilities will help protect against brain decline.
Dementia cases worldwide are expected to triple to around 150 million by 2050. With no cure in sight, there is an increasing focus on lifestyle changes that reduce the risk.
For their study, the international team looked at three separate components of attention and executive function in 702 participants ages 58 to 98, when cognition often changes the most. The brain networks are involved in alerting, orienting and executive inhibition. Each has separate characteristics and relies on different regions, neurochemicals and genes, suggesting unique aging patterns. Alerting is characterized by a state of enhanced vigilance and preparedness in order to respond to incoming information. Orienting involves shifting brain resources to a particular location. The executive network shuts out distracting or conflicting information.
“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,” explains first author Dr Joao Verissimo, of the University of Lisbon, “And executive function allows you to inhibit distractions such as birds or billboards so you can stay focused on driving.”
Remarkably, only alerting abilities were found to decline with age. In contrast, both orienting and executive inhibition actually got better. The latter two skills allow people to selectively attend to objects, and improve with lifelong practice, explain the researchers. The gains can be large enough to outweigh any underlying neural reductions.
In contrast, alerting may drop off because this basic state of vigilance and preparedness does not get better with implementation.
“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,” says Dr Verissimo, “Moreover, because orienting and inhibitory skills underlie numerous behaviors, the results have wide ranging implications.”
“The findings not only change our view of how aging affects the mind, but may also lead to clinical improvements, including for patients with aging disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.” adds Ullman.
The findings are published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.