Raise your hand if you’ve always assumed that your brain starts on a downward slide around the time that gray hairs start poking through your scalp. Well, not so fast. There is good news from the halls of science. A new study, which appears in Nature Human Behavior, shows that in at least two areas brain function actually improves as the years tick by.
“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,” says senior study author Dr. Michael T. Ullman, director of Georgetown University Medical Center’s Brain and Language Lab in Washington, D.C.
The researchers studied 702 participants who were aged 58 to 98. They tested the participants for the following three cognitive functions: alerting, orienting, and executive inhibition.
The Aging Brain: The Good News
Here’s how these three functions work:
“We use all three processes constantly,” explains study author Dr. João Veríssimo, an assistant professor at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. “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.”
Two functions—orienting and executive inhibition—improved.
The researchers tested the functioning of the participants using the computer-based Attention Network Test (ANT). The ANT tests how well participants can respond to the target stimulus shown on the computer screen. The study authors say the ANT “simultaneously measures the efficiency of all three networks.”
While previous studies thought all three processes declined with age, the researchers found that only alerting abilities declined. The other two processes—orienting and executive inhibition—improved.
“These results are amazing and have important consequences for how we should view aging,” says Ullman. “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.”
Cognitive Function as We Age
While the study shows that orienting and executive processes can improve with age, it is possible to help improve other cognitive abilities with certain activities. Yes, we’re talking about activities like learning a second language, learning a musical instrument, taking classes, and keeping up with your friends and other social contacts.
Plus, apps and websites that are focused on giving the old brain a work out can help “Evidence suggests that one may indeed be able to further train executive inhibitory function with practice — for instance, with apps or online programs — though it is still unclear to what extent any improvements generalize broadly beyond what’s trained in the programs,” Ullman told Medical News Today.
We like to think that the prescription for a healthy brain is play games, play music, and hang out with friends. That seems pretty fun.