The list of things we think of as getting better with age is fairly short: wine, cheese and leather. Cognitive functions aren’t usually something that comes to mind — pun intended.
But new research from Georgetown University may help expand that short list.
Previously, the general consensus was pretty simple: aging and cognitive decline are one and the same. The older you get, the more you’ll see an across-the-board decline in attention, executive function and reasoning skills. Now, however, a study published in Nature Human Behavior suggests some of these may actually improve with time — like executive functions.
These include actions such as flexible thinking, working memory and self-control, or processes that help individuals focus on specific parts of information to achieve goals while ignoring information that’s distracting or irrelevant. Skills like this are an essential part of day-to-day activities and a prerequisite for more advanced cognitive actions.
In the study, researchers looked at 702 participants who were 58 to 98 years old, and tested them for cognitive functions like orienting, alerting and executive inhibition. Results indicated that critical aspects of these abilities improved with age. Those included things like noticing unexpected movement when approaching an intersection and the ability to stay focused on driving despite distractions.
According to the study, this is why we get better at most things over time — lots and lots of practice.
Importantly, the study may change how some of us perceive the aging process, and reframe how we view the way our bodies — and minds — change over time.