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Do Some Cognitive Functions Improve With Age?

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This is a writeup of a recent article that appeared in MedicalNewsToday, entitled “Do some cognitive functions improve with age?”

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Some aspects of cognitive function improve as we age
Hard to believe?


Findings from a new research study entitled “Nature Human BehaviourTrusted Source” suggest that training the brain may help improve cognitive function.  Rather than seeing a decline in all cognitive functions, older adults instead demonstrated improvements in some domains.


What is Cognitive functioning?
According to the American Psychological Association, cognitive functioning refers to “performance of the mental processes of perception, learning, memory, understanding, awareness, reasoning, judgment, intuition, and language.”

Cognitive functioning includes executive functions, such as flexible thinking, working memory and self-control.  The study’s authors describe executive function as “The critical set of processes that allow us to focus on selective aspects of information in a goal-directed manner while ignoring irrelevant information.”


Contrast this with traditional researchers who have long maintained that there is a point where people stop making cognitive functioning progress and begin experiencing a decline.  In particular, some traditional experts have considered  memory to be one of the most affected brain functions in older adults.


The new research study suggests that training the brain may help improve cognitive function.  Rather than seeing a decline in all cognitive functions, older adults instead demonstrated improvements in some domains.


More new findings from the same study:
Many but not all cognitive abilities decline during ageing. Some even improve due to lifelong experience. The critical capacities of attention and executive functions have been widely posited to decline. However, these capacities are composed of multiple components, so multifaceted ageing outcomes might be expected. Indeed, prior findings suggest that whereas certain attention/executive functions clearly decline, others do not, with hints that some might even improve. Linear and nonlinear analyses revealed that whereas the efficiency of the alerting network decreased with age, orienting and executive inhibitory efficiency increased, at least until the mid-to-late 70s. Sensitivity analyses indicated that the patterns were robust. The results suggest variability in age-related changes across attention/executive functions, with some declining while others improve.


Study on functioning skills
“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, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience and director of Georgetown University Medical Center’s Brain and Language Lab in Washington, D.C.

The researchers studied 702 participants who were aged 58–98. They tested the participants for the following three cognitive functions:

  • alerting
  • orienting
  • executive inhibition

First study author Dr. João Veríssimo, an assistant professor at the University of Lisbon, Portugal, describes how these three processes work:  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 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.

While previous studies thought all three processes declined with age, these 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, according to Dr. 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.

For years, most research indicated that older adults experience a decline in brain functioning across the board. However, from the new observational study appearing in this research study,  Nature Human BehaviourTrusted Source, this may not be true.


Improvement in cognitive functioning
The study’s authors found that rather than seeing a decline in all cognitive functions, older adults instead demonstrated improvements in some domains, as described in the following paragraph.

While the study shows that orienting and executive processes can improve with age, it is possible to help further improve cognitive abilities with certain activities.

Although the current study did not try to identify how we might improve cognitive functioning, speaking with Medical News Today study author Dr. João Veríssimo offered some advice, stating that it is more likely that cognitive abilities can be improved through engagement with multiple and diverse activities.   Dr. Veríssimo added that, together these may reinforce a range of general abilities — perhaps activities such as learning a second language, a musical instrument, attending courses, social interaction — in addition to any targeted practice for specific functions.   However, he also clarified that although such interventions are promising, more data is needed.


We hope you have enjoyed  our writeup on “Do some cognitive functions improve with age?”

It is our opinion that we sometimes talk down to our seniors, as if they had lost their marbles completely.  Hopefully, this article will shine a new light on their talents, abilities and life experience, and we will begin to view them as contributing members of society.



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