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Cognition Declines but Well-Being Improves with Age in Adults

Cognitive well-being refers to an individual’s mental capabilities, especially their ability to understand, learn and remember new information. It’s important for performing normal tasks. Maintaining emotional steadiness in later life is greatly aided by strong cognitive function.

New research from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, published on September 12, 2022, in Psychology and Aging, discovered that healthy older adults have higher mental health but worse cognitive function than younger adults. Exploring the underlying neural systems may provide innovative approaches to improving brain function.

 “We want to determine if cognitive abilities and psychological well-being depend on the same or different brain regions as people age.” said senior author PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine. 

A total of 62 young individuals in their twenties and 54 people over the age of 60 who were otherwise healthy were included in the research. Researchers assessed participants to evaluate their mental health, searching for indicators of stress, sadness, social isolation, and other disorders. Participants’ brain waves were recorded using electroencephalography (EEG) while they performed a series of cognitively challenging tasks.

A larger amount of activity in the anterior regions of the default mode network was seen throughout the tasks in the older people, as recorded by EEG. During goal-oriented tasks, this network of brain regions is often muted but is active during rumination, daydreaming, and mind-wandering. Depression and anxiety were more common among young people, whereas the elderly found to be in excellent mental health. Performance on cognitive tasks, however, was much worse among the elderly.
“The default mode network is useful in other contexts, helping us process the past and imagine the future,” said an associate professor of psychiatry at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. However, this network can be a distraction when trying to focus on the present to tackle a demanding task quickly and accurately.

A number of additional brain regions also seem to boost mental performance. Activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in executive control, is correlated with better task performance in younger individuals. 

An associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, says that “these findings may provide new neurological markers to help monitor and mitigate cognitive decline in aging, while simultaneously preserving well-being.” According to the author, “We tend to think of individuals in their twenties as being at their best cognitive capacity, but it is also a highly stressful time of their lives, so when it comes to mental well-being, there may be lessons to be learned from older adults and their brains.”

As a result, the group is currently investigating therapeutic therapies, such as brain stimulation techniques, that might boost these frontal networks while simultaneously suppressing the default mode network, perhaps through mindfulness meditation or other activities that focus individuals on the present.

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