Two ways your brain actually improves with age - provided you keep it active

In a break from common wisdom, new research suggests that our brains may actually improve with age

An older man sitting at a desk using a calculator and tablet
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Most of us associate aging with cognitive decline. While certain medical conditions contribute to these changes, a new study shows that, fortunately, aging isn't solely a one-way downhill journey. By splitting brain functions into three categories, the researchers demonstrated that two areas of mental ability improved with age.

There's no denying the physical impacts of aging—it's one of the main reasons to consider taking the best vitamins for women over 50 or the best supplements for joints, for example. But the effect on our brains has been less clear. Some studies suggest that cognitive decline is almost inevitable, but the specific mental functions underlying these changes haven't been as evident. 

The researchers at Georgetown University split brain function into three activities; alerting, orienting, and executive inhibition. As you might expect, alerting is how prepared we are to respond to incoming information. This is a crucial function, but it works alongside orienting activity, where our focus shifts to an unexpected real-world event. To gauge the priority of incoming information, we use executive inhibition to remove distractions. 

The research showed that as we advance in age, our alerting ability decreases. This means we generally become less alert or prepared for unexpected events around us. However, the study's authors found that the other two activities, orienting and executive inhibition, actually increased with age. The authors didn't give a definitive explanation for this, but suggest it's because we use these skills every day and improve over time as we gain experience. 

The relatively large study had 702 participants aged between 58 and 98. As a result, one of the study's authors, João Veríssimo, an assistant professor at the University of Lisbon, noted that "because we [also] ruled out numerous alternative explanations, the findings should be reliable and so may apply quite broadly."

Given the importance of orienting and executive inhibition in our overall mental ability, he also thinks this finding could have far-reaching implications for how we approach aging-related conditions like Alzheimer's disease. 

The study offers a rare bit of good news, but it can be hard to know exactly how to keep those two brain functions in top shape. Fortunately, mindfulness training changes your brain chemistry to help you focus on the present moment, improve cognitive performance, and deal with negative thoughts - so learning how to meditate could be a good place to start.

James Frew
Fitness Editor

James is a London-based journalist and Fitness Editor at Fit&Well. He has over five years experience in fitness tech, including time spent as the Buyer’s Guide Editor and Staff Writer at technology publication MakeUseOf. In 2014 he was diagnosed with a chronic health condition, which spurred his interest in health, fitness, and lifestyle management.

In the years since, he has become a devoted meditator, experimented with workout styles and exercises, and used various gadgets to monitor his health. In recent times, James has been absorbed by the intersection between mental health, fitness, sustainability, and environmentalism. When not concerning himself with health and technology, James can be found excitedly checking out each week’s New Music Friday releases.