A new, large-scale study has found older people can train to prevent the decline of their brain’s executive function, which controls task-switching behaviour, allowing them to keep up mentally with those in their twenties.
The research, a collaboration between the University of Newcastle’s Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) and the University of California, Irvine, used a brain-training game called Luminosity to assess participants’ ability to switch between tasks.
Cognitive function can be restored as we age, new research suggests. Credit:AFR
The younger participants performed better but, with practice, the older people improved.
About half those aged 71 to 80 became as good as those aged 50 to 61, while a small number of older participants who practised consistently became as good as the 21-year-old players.
“The most positive message is that with continued practice you can get performance levels that will become equivalent to those of younger adults,” said Professor Frini Karayanidis from HMRI’s brain and mental health program.
“Up until now, training programs show a level of improvement and it plateaus. We showed continued training leads to continued improvements.”
Professor Karayanidis said the research raised a number of questions about why some people improved and some didn’t, noting there are lifestyle and health factors which require further investigation, although she was hopeful the results would translate to real-life scenarios.
Seamlessly shifting between tasks is “really important” in the way we have to function in our world, she said, adding there is a difference between good multitasking (driving) and bad multitasking (texting while driving).
“Younger and older people have higher mortality rates while driving. Young people drive too fast and there’s no time to make decisions. Older people find each component of each decision too much and decide too slowly.”
While the findings are positive in showing we can improve our mental fitness as we age, there are other ways we can do this in real life, said Dr Fiona Kumfor, a cognitive neuroscientist from the University of Sydney, who was optimistic about the study.
“There is now robust evidence that we can maintain cognition/brain health through a combination of cognitive, physical and social 'exercise',” Dr Kumfor said.
“That means maintaining an active and engaged lifestyle. These types of cognitive exercises are only one facet – being physically active, and spending time in social interactions are equally important.
“Also, cognitive exercises don’t just include brain training apps – it can include things like learning a new language, or a musical instrument, taking part in an adult education course, reading a challenging book. Anything that is mentally challenging for the individual.”
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