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NIH Record - 75th Anniversary - National Institutes of Health

Can Brain Functions Improve with Age?

Gray-haired Black couple smiling behind a laptop

Study finds not all brain functions may decline with age.

Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Computer tests of attention and focus revealed that older adults declined in 1 one out of 3 key brain functions. The other functions actually improved during aging, at least until the mid-to-late 70s. The results of the NIA-funded study were published in Nature Human Behaviour.

Cognitive changes such as mild forgetfulness are often a normal part of aging. Older adults may find it takes longer to remember a fact or learn a new skill. At the extreme end, the risk of dementia rises with aging. In fact, the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease doubles about every 5 years beyond age 65.

But not all brain functions may decline with age. Cognitive skills that need constant practice, such as understanding and using language, are usually well preserved. 

To further explore whether some cognitive skills improve with age, a research team studied more than 700 adults ages 58 to 98. Study participants took computerized tests of three aspects of attention: readiness to respond to incoming information (alerting); moving attention to a particular location (orienting); and executive control—the ability to ignore distractions and focus on the task at hand.

Increasing age was associated with slower response times and less alertness to incoming information, but the other two aspects of attention improved with age. Older participants could more efficiently orient attention toward different objects and were better at ignoring distractions than younger participants.

These two preserved brain functions showed different trajectories over time. Attention orienting ability increased steadily from middle age into older adulthood. Executive control increased into the mid-to-late 70s, then declined. Yet the gains from earlier old age were large enough so that even the oldest adults were no worse at ignoring distractions than the youngest.

The improvements found in brain functions may have benefits for higher-level cognitive abilities, such as decision-making and long-term memory. More research is needed to see if targeting such skills could help protect against overall cognitive decline during aging. —adapted from NIH Research Matters

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