Study finds two critical mental skills get better, not worse, with aging

Age-related cognitive decline is a well-known subject, but getting older isn't entirely bad news when it comes to one's mental abilities. According to a new study from Georgetown University Medical Center, two critical mental skills may actually improve with age, enabling older adults to better handle new data and zero in on important information.

The new study builds upon some past smaller-scale research that has found aging may not guarantee cognitive decline and that, in fact, it may improve aspects of cognition. The researchers suggest that it may be possible to improve these critical mental skills to help mitigate the brain decline that happens with natural aging.

The findings were based on a study of 702 participants ages 58 to 98, the age range during which aging has the greatest impact on cognitive changes. The researchers focused on three key aspects of cognition: executive inhibition, alerting, and orienting.

Of those three critical brain functions, only "alerting" was found to get worse with age; this skill involves being prepared and vigilant for new information. The other two, orienting and executive inhibition, were both found to have improved with age, serving as a solid foundation for things like decision making and self-control.

The study's senior investigator Michael T. Ullman, Ph.D., said:

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. 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.