By now, we’ve all heard plenty about the things that can go wrong with the aging brain – chief among them, memory loss and the fact that your risk for Alzheimer’s disease climbs with every passing year.
But there’s good news about brain aging that you won’t hear from your doctor… and that’s how some of your mental abilities can actually improve with the passing years. That’s right, your brain can actually get better with age.
In fact, in exploring how brain function changes as we age, researchers have recently discovered that some of the age-related brain changes offer intellectual advantages not available to the young.
According to a team of brain researchers from Georgetown University, Princeton University, Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Lisbon in Portugal, two important brain activities are actually reinforced and strengthened as you age instead of being diminished.
The first brain activity that grows stronger is the ability to pay close attention to new information. The second is your capacity for zeroing in on what’s important in certain circumstances. These abilities, say the researchers, are the foundations that support your older but wiser cognitive abilities and shore up decision making, self-control, memory, language, reading, math and navigation.
“These results are amazing, and have important consequences for how we should view aging,” says researcher Michael T. Ullman, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Neuroscience and Director of Georgetown’s Brain and Language Lab.
Practice Makes Perfect
In this study, the researchers analyzed the behavior of brain networks in more than 700 people aged 58 to 98. The brain networks they examined are involved in three different areas of cognitive activity that the researchers called:
Alerting: The ability to stay ready to receive and comprehend new information (such as waiting at a stoplight and staying alert for when it changes color).
Executive control or inhibition: Capacity for maintaining self-control in order to achieve a goal (this includes ignoring distractions).
Orienting: Picking out the most important sensory information in a particular situation (such as monitoring the behavior of a car in front of you while driving).
According to researcher João Verissimo, who is affiliated with the University of Lisbon, “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.”
In their tests of study subjects, the scientists found that orienting and executive control improved with age. Only alerting slipped.1
The researchers believe that orienting and executive control actually get better as we get older because these sorts of skills improve with practice. In contrast, they say, alerting can’t really be reinforced by repetition. So, that skill is more likely to decline. However, the researchers caution that the causes behind these changes is just speculation.
Either way, the results provide some support for the old adage that you really do grow wiser as you get older.
Dr. Ullman suggests that we all concentrate on honing these mental skills to help our brains function better as we age.
“People have widely assumed that attention and executive functions (which include decision-making processes) decline with age, despite intriguing hints from some smaller-scale studies that raised questions about these assumptions,” says 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.”
The Early Bird Gets Better Brain Performance
Meanwhile, brain researchers in Canada have a tip for getting the best performance out of an older brain when you’re tackling challenging tasks: get to them first thing in the morning.
A study at the University of Toronto and the Baycrest Rotman Research Institute shows that when older folks tackle intellectually demanding work, the neuronal networks in their brain function better earlier in the day, before lunch.2
So, the Canadians say that if you’re doing your taxes, taking a driver’s license renewal exam, trying to cook a new recipe or consulting a healthcare practitioner about a new health problem, you should schedule those activities for the morning.
As a final note, I’d add that to keep your mental performance at its best, be sure to get enough sleep. Plenty of studies show that missing out on sleep compromises your intellectual abilities. And if you skimp on sleep don’t get suckered into thinking that caffeine or other stimulants can solve the problem.
A study at Harvard shows that after missing significant sleep, caffeine, modafinil (a stimulant) or even amphetamines will make you think you’re more alert but your decision-making abilities will still be awful. 3 So get plenty of shut-eye!