- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Think again.

When the going gets tough, older adult brains get going, according to research released yesterday by University of Michigan psychologist Cindy Lustig, who found that folks older than 65 unexpectedly tap into certain brain resources when faced with demanding tasks.

“Older adults’ brains can indeed rise to the challenge, at least in some situations, although they may do so differently than young adults,” said Ms. Lustig.

Several regions in the brain help people deal with constantly changing environments. Although earlier research often focused on the failure of older people to use these regions, the new research found that seniors indeed can activate the areas and may tap additional brain regions to help their performance.

Ms. Lustig compared magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which measured the brain activity in 18- to 30-year-olds and people older than 65 while they performed assorted tasks. When faced with daunting shape or size judgment, the MRI patterns in both groups switched without warning.

The researchers found marked similarities between the MRIs of old and young.

“This is good news. Previously, we thought that the elderly couldn’t do this type of thing as well. In our study, we found they are activating these brain areas — and quite a bit,” Ms. Lustig said.

Some differences emerged. The MRIs revealed that the older adults seemed to augment their thinking by increasing activation in other brain regions that young adults did not use, though the researchers have not determined whether the finding is positive or negative, Ms. Lustig said.

The aging brain has been the center of other inquiries this week as well.

“As we grow older, we become more emotional,” states a dual consumer research project from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California at Los Angeles, also released yesterday.

It found that older consumers prefer emotional appeals in advertisements and remember these messages better than commercials with strictly rational appeals. But that could come at a price.

“This emotion often causes susceptibility to misleading advertising,” the researchers caution in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Meanwhile, age-related changes in brain function also account for certain behaviors in older folks that could be interpreted as downright rude, such as asking a personal question at an inappropriate time.

The old folks are not rude, just uninhibited, say psychologists at Australia’s University of New South Wales in Sydney. They found that people older than 65 are less able to dampen thoughts or actions deemed improper.

Not to worry. It’s part of “the normal aging process,” said psychologist Bill von Hippel, who conducted the research.

“It’s not just that older people were more likely than younger people to ask personal questions,” Mr. von Hippel observed. “It seems that young adults have a greater ability to hold their tongue.”

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