An international team of researchers, in a study of hundreds of older people, found two key brain functions which improve with age.
For their study, the team looked at three separate components of attention and executive function in 702 participants ages 58 to 98, when cognition often changes the most. The brain networks are involved in alerting, orienting, and executive inhibition. 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. The executive network shuts out distracting or conflicting information.
Dr Joao Verissimo, of the University of Lisbon, and lead author of the research study, offers a simple example of the three separate components:
“We use all three processes constantly. 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.”
Remarkably, only alerting abilities were found to decline with age. In contrast, both orienting and executive inhibition actually got better. The latter two skills allow people to selectively attend to objects, and improve with lifelong practice.
This discovery could lead to better therapies for Alzheimer’s disease.
“These results are amazing, and have important consequences for how we should view aging,” says senior investigator Michael Ullman, Ph.D., a co-author on the study and a professor in the Department of Neuroscience at Georgetown University, and director of its Brain and Language Lab.
I don’t know enough about these brain functions, but it seems to me that orienting and executive function are opposites of each other.
Orienting enables you to shift your attention when something unexpected happens, while executive function allows you to inhibit distractions.
It reminds me of the oft-repeated joke about squirrels in the wonderful movie “Up“:
So whenever Dug the Dog sees a squirrel it seems like he is practicing orienting and doing the exact opposite of executive function. (By the way, the voice of Carl, the old man, is the recently departed Ed Asner).
But despite this confusion on my part, I am happy to see that parts of our brain get better with age.
I just hope that my executive function is stronger than my orienting function when it comes to using social media. I don’t think I’m quite there yet.
What I found most interesting…
Oops, gotta go. Someone just liked one of my posts…
*image from Institute for Applied Psychometrics