Georgetown University Study Shows that Mental Abilities Can Actually Improve with Age

It’s commonly believed that mental abilities decline across the board as we grow old. New research from Georgetown University Medical Center shows that this isn’t always the case.

A new study, published August 19, 2021 in Nature Human Behavior, builds upon some past smaller-scale research that has found aging may not guarantee cognitive decline and that it may actually improve aspects of cognition. The researchers suggest that it may be possible to improve these critical mental skills to help lessen the brain decline that happens with natural aging.

Findings from the Study

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.

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 in space. The executive network inhibits distracting or conflicting information, allowing us to focus on what’s important.

Of those three critical brain functions, only alerting was found to get worse with age, as 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 such as decision making and self-control.

The findings show that:

  • Each brain function studied has different characteristics and relies on different brain areas and different neurochemicals and genes;
  • Brain functions, which allow us to attend to new information and to focus on what’s important in a given situation, can improve in older individuals;
  • The functions that improved underlie critical aspects of cognition such as memory, decision making, and self-control, and even navigation, math, language, and reading;
  • Critical elements of these abilities actually improve during aging, likely because we simply practice these skills throughout our life;
  • Because orienting and inhibition are simply skills that allow people to selectively attend to objects, these skills can improve with lifelong practice. Alerting likely declines because this basic state of vigilance and preparedness cannot improve with practice.

“We use all three processes constantly,” said Joao Veríssimo, an assistant professor at the University of Lisbon, Portugal, and an author on the study. “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.”

“These results are amazing, and have important consequences for how we should view aging,” says the study’s senior investigator, Michael T. Ullman, PhD, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience and director of Georgetown’s Brain and Language Lab. “The findings not only change our view of how aging affects the mind, but may also lead to clinical improvements, including for patients with aging disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease,” he said.

Tips for Maintaining and Improving Your Memory

The American Psychological Association offers these tips from scientists on how to minimize age-related changes and improve everyday memory function:

  • Socializing in social and community activities improves mood and memory function;
  • Get moving: Physical activities and exercise, such as brisk walking, help boost and maintain brain function;
  • Memory Aids: Keep “to do” lists and put them where you will see them often. Mark off items as you accomplish them;
  • Establish a routine and follow it: For example, if you take your medicines at the same times every day, you are more likely to remember them;
  • Train your brain: Using mnemonic strategies to remember names improves learning and memory. (Mnemonics are tricks and techniques for remembering information that is difficult to recall: An example is the mnemonic “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” or “Roy G. Biv” to remember the first letters of the colors of the rainbow in order of their wave lengths: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet);
  • Keep everything in its place: If you always put your reading glasses in the same place, you will always know where they are. Put items that you don’t want to forget in a place where you will see them when you need to. For example, hang your keys by the exit door you use most often;
  • Keep a paper or electronic calendar of important dates: Make sure to check it a couple of times a day.
  • Don’t buy into ageist stereotypes about memory decline: Studies have shown that having positive beliefs about aging can improve memory performance in older adults;
  • Keep a sense of control and confidence in your memory: Don’t assume that little memory lapses mean you have dementia. Use memory aids to gain and maintain.
  • Don’t rush: Give yourself time to memorize a new name or recall an old one.

Promising research shows that you can reduce your risk of dementia through a combination of healthy habits, including eating right, exercising, staying mentally and socially active, and keeping stress to a minimum. By leading a brain-healthy lifestyle, you may be able to prevent the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and slow down, or even reverse, the process of deterioration.

When to Seek Professional Help

Normal memory problems do not affect your everyday living. If you forget where you put your keys, you probably just need to get better organized. The memory glitches that occur normally during older age are subtle and do not have to interfere with daily life. In fact, you can easily adapt to them by making lists, establishing routines, using associations, and employing The other memory aids described above.

If you forget what keys are used for or how to unlock doors, you should speak with your doctor. This type of memory problem is not a normal part of aging. Other tip-offs that a memory problem may require professional attention include, among other things:

  • Forgetting how to carry out everyday tasks, such as handling money or paying bills;
  • Not being able to learn new things, such as how to operate a new microwave or to take an alternate route to the grocery store;
  • Not recalling the names of loved ones.

Planning in Advance While Your Mind is Sharp

Many people delay estate planning, incapacity planning, and long-term care planning partly because it’s unpleasant to contemplate our own mortality, and partly because younger adults believe such paperwork isn’t necessary until they reach old age. However, failing to plan or waiting too long or until your cannot make sound decisions can have catastrophic consequences.

Medicaid Asset Protection

Do you have a loved one who is suffering from dementia? Persons with dementia and their families face special legal and financial needs. At The Farr Law Firm, we are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on those suffering from dementia and their loved ones. We help protect the family’s hard-earned assets while maintaining your loved one’s comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits such as Medicaid and Veterans Aid and Attendance. Call us any time to make an appointment for a no-cost initial consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797
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