Some Cognitive Functions Improve With Age: Study

September 9, 2021

It’s generally thought that cognitive functions such as attention, reasoning, and executive function decline with age. New findings, however, are quick to challenge this belief, suggesting that some of these functions can actually improve with age, paired with brain training. 

The observational study, published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, saw an improvement rather than a decline in cognitive functions among older adults across domains. 

Cognitive functioning includes executive functions such as working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. 

Study Details

The study involved 702 participants ages 58 to 98, testing them for cognitive functions namely alerting, orienting, and executive inhibition. 

Humans, according to the researchers, use these functions differently. When driving, alerting leads to better preparedness, orienting shifts attention to an unexpected movement like a pedestrian, while executive function improves focus on driving amid distractions. 

The team tested the participants’ functioning using the computer-based Attention Network Test (ANT), which analyzed how well the subjects responded to the target stimulus flashed on the computer. The results were rather surprising: only the subjects’ alerting abilities declined with age, while their orienting and executive inhibition actually improved. 

The researchers dubbed the results “amazing and have important consequences for how we should view aging.” The large study indicated that components of these cognitive functions actually get better with age likely because they are practiced throughout life. 

Retrieval and How to Improve Learning 

Other recent findings also challenge common and traditionally established beliefs and assumptions about brain and cognitive functioning. 

Recent work, for instance, has shown that retrieval is important for durable and long-term learning. Every time we retrieve a memory, it becomes more accessible in the future, helping create mental representations of complex ideas (a type of deep learning). 

Retrieval processes play a central role in learning. Retrieval-based learning incites the development of new learning strategies based on retrieval practice. According to mounting research, though, retrieval practice is actually underappreciated as a learning technique. 

Unfortunately, retrieval isn’t typically deemed important in the learning process; many learners don’t practice it often or effectively at all. Conversely, repetitive reading — the most popular learning technique among college students — causes very limited levels of learning. 

Retrieval can take place in a number of ways, and various activities may be turned into retrieval-based learning methods. Key is spending time actively retrieving when attempting to learn something new. 

Final Note: Practice Is Key

Going back to cognitive functioning, is it possible to train them with practice? Of course, noted the researchers. You may use apps or online programs, though it remains unclear to what extent the improvements are beyond structured programs. 

One thing is for certain: There’s a great potential to improve cognitive functions in aging via targeted, dedicated, and passionate practice. 

Keep posted for more brain enhancement news, scientific findings, and updated on this blog. 


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