Some mental abilities actually improve with age! This is great news, because the general view is that our brain volume shrinks and mental abilities decline with age (especially after age 70).
A large Georgetown Univ. Medical Center study of 702 participants (58 to 98 years old) found that two important brain functions actually improve with age, probably due to lifelong experience using them. They were attention and executive functions - which allow us to attend to new information and to focus on what's important in a situation. They underlie memory, decision making, self-control, navigation, language, and reading.
Is this why there is a saying that wisdom comes with age?
From Science Daily: Key mental abilities can actually improve during aging
It's long been believed that advancing age leads to broad declines in our mental abilities. Now new research from Georgetown University Medical Center offers surprisingly good news by countering this view.
The findings, published August 19, 2021, in Nature Human Behaviour, show that two key brain functions, which allow us to attend to new information and to focus on what's important in a given situation, can in fact improve in older individuals. These functions underlie critical aspects of cognition such as memory, decision making, and self-control, and even navigation, math, language, and reading.
The research team, which includes first author João Veríssimo, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Lisbon, Portugal, looked at three separate components of attention and executive function in a group of 702 participants aged 58 to 98. They focused on these ages since this is when cognition often changes the most during aging.
The components they studied are the brain networks involved in alerting, orienting, and executive inhibition. Each has different characteristics and relies on different brain areas and different neurochemicals and genes. Therefore, Ullman and Veríssimo reasoned, the networks may also show different aging patterns.
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.
"We use all three processes constantly," Veríssimo explains. "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 study found that only alerting abilities declined with age. In contrast, both orienting and executive inhibition actually improved.
The researchers hypothesize that because orienting and inhibition are simply skills that allow people to selectively attend to objects, these skills can improve with lifelong practice. The gains from this practice can be large enough to outweigh the underlying neural declines, Ullman and Veríssimo suggest. In contrast, they believe that alerting declines because this basic state of vigilance and preparedness cannot improve with practice.