A new study has promising, positive news about aging that was deemed “amazing” by one of the lead authors.
“It’s long been believed that advancing age leads to broad declines in our mental abilities. New research from Georgetown University Medical Center offers surprisingly good news by countering this view,” the center said in a statement released Tuesday.
“These functions underlie critical aspects of cognition such as memory, decision making, and self-control, and even navigation, math, language, and reading,” the statement said.
“These results are amazing, and have important consequences for how we should view aging,” said lead researcher Michael T. Ullman, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience and director of Georgetown’s Brain and Language Lab.
“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,” Mr. Ullman said.
“This is all the more important because of the rapidly aging population, both in the U.S. and around the world,” Mr. Ullman continued, noting that it may be possible to deliberately improve these skills.
The study examined certain mental functions of 702 participants who ranged in age from 58 to 98. The research focussed on “alerting, orienting, and executive inhibition” in particular.
“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 in space. The executive network inhibits distracting or conflicting information, allowing us to focus on what’s important,” said the research.
It determined that alerting abilities decline with age. In contrast, both orienting and executive inhibition actually improved.
“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. Because orienting and inhibitory skills underlie numerous behaviors, the results have wide-ranging implications,” said Joao Veríssimo, an assistant professor at the University of Lisbon, Portugal, and an author on the study.
“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,” Mr. Ullman said.
The research team also included Paul Verhaeghen, Georgia Institute of Technology; Noreen Goldman, Princeton University; and Maxine Weinstein, Georgetown University. The work was supported by the National Institutes of Health and will be published Thursday in Nature Human Behavior, an academic journal.