Two brain functions actually improve with age — and you can make them even stronger

One of the worst and scariest parts of growing old is cognitive decline. But a new study has found that some brain functions actually begin to improve even as we hit our 70s and 80s.

According to findings published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, executive inhibition (the ability to focus and reason in order to make effective decisions) and orientation (awareness of time, place, and oneself) actually get better as we get older.

“People have widely assumed that orientation and executive functions decline with age, despite intriguing hints from some smaller-scale studies that raised questions about these assumptions,” the authors wrote.

Both of these brain functions are often used to anticipate the presence of serious cognitive illnesses like dementia.

Why do executive inhibition and orientation improve as we age?

The human brain isn’t a muscle, but it works a lot like one.

The more we engage in tasks that require its attention, the stronger it gets. Life dictates that we slow down in most areas of our life as we age, but there are some brain functions that we never stop using on a daily basis. Executive inhibition and orientation are among them. Any activity that utilizes memory, self-control, navigation, math, language, or reading strengthens one or both of the two functions, according to the researchers.

The participants, who were all between 58 and 98, showed neurological signs of deterioration in all of the brain regions studied, but the majority practiced forms of executive inhibition and orientation so frequently that they were still able to improve them.

“For example, when you are driving a car. Orienting occurs when you shift your attention to an unexpected movement, such as a pedestrian, ” said Michael T. Ullman, the study’s senior investigator, a professor in the department of neuroscience, and director of Georgetown’s Brain and Language Lab. “An executive function allows you to inhibit distractions such as birds or billboards so you can stay focused on driving.”

On the other hand, alertness, which allows us to react quickly to new information and stimuli, cannot be practiced, and its health relies predominantly on genetics and neurological processes.

A behavioral approach to dementia treatment

The participants appeared to be able to delay the onset of cognitive decline by engaging in activities that stimulated the brain. Many of these activities were routine things we all do every day.

The fact that these mundane tasks dramatically contributed to healthier brain functions suggests that more cognitively demanding tasks might be able to deter dementia-related illness.

“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,” Ullman said.

What you can do to stimulate your brain

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, learning a new language, playing a musical instrument, or participating in leisure activities like sports, dancing, gardening, groups, and board games can all help reduce your risk of cognitive decline.