Scientists generally believe that cognitive functions, including attention, executive function, and reasoning skills, decline with age.
A new study challenges this belief and suggests that orienting and executive functioning improve with age.
Researchers suggest that training the brain may help improve cognitive function.
For years, most research indicated that older adults experience a decline in brain functioning across the board. However, a new observational study, which appears in Nature Human BehaviourTrusted Source, suggests that may not be true.
The study’s authors found that rather than seeing a decline in all cognitive functions, older adults instead demonstrated improvements in some domains.
According to the American Psychological Association, cognitive functioning refers to “performance of the mental processes of perception, learning, memory, understanding, awareness, reasoning, judgment, intuition, and language.”
Cognitive functioning includes executive functions, such as flexible thinking, working memory, and self-control. People with neurological conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can experience deficits in these functions.
The study authors described executive function as:
“The critical set of processes that allow us to focus on selective aspects of information in a goal-directed manner while ignoring irrelevant information. This set of functions is crucial for everyday life and supports numerous higher-level cognitive capacities.”
Researchers have long thought that there is a point where people stop making cognitive functioning progress and begin experiencing a decline.
In particular, some experts consider memory to be one of the most affected brain functions in older adults. For instance, the author of a review paperTrusted Source on the impact of age on cognition writes:
“The most noticeable changes in attention that occur with age are declines in performance on complex attentional tasks, such as selective or divided attention.”
Study on functioning skills
The latest study paints a less negative picture than other studies. The new research shows that older adults may improve in some areas.
“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,” says senior study author Dr. Michael T. Ullman.
Dr. Ullman is a professor in the Department of Neuroscience and director of Georgetown University Medical Center’s Brain and Language Lab in Washington, D.C.
The researchers studied 702 participants who were aged 58–98. They tested the participants for the following three cognitive functions: