Everyone grows up. This, one of the universal truths of life on Earth, heavily influences both the way in which we choose to live and our understanding of life itself. With each passing day, we take in new experiences, expand our worldview, and learn new things. That learning process, in which we activate many different portions of our brains, involves billions of neurons changing and connecting at tens of thousands of synapses per neuron. As overwhelming as it may be to conceptualize this incredibly complex neurocircuitry, learning is many times effectively synonymous with life. You learn every day you are alive.
As such, it can be nothing short of horrifying to realize your mind does not seem to be acquiring, retaining, or interpreting data at quite the same rate of success as you are used to enjoying. If our ability to learn and remember information is so closely intertwined with our understanding of life (and definitely with a certain quality of life), the fear of losing the capacity to do so, particularly for aging individuals, can be debilitating. This is increasingly true as you notice more differences in pre-established patterns of behavior. However, the first step to facing this new phase of life is to equip yourself with some critical knowledge about what you are experiencing.
Due in large part to the advent of resources like the world wide web, there is, happily, no shortage of information available to individuals curious about how aging impacts the development of their brain. There has been an intensive scientific effort for quite some time now to improve our understanding how things like attention, memory, speech, and even decision making change over the years.
Many changes in cognitive function are inevitable. It is helpful to understand that these developments are often unavoidable and completely natural. A decent grasp of what what these functions are is the first step to responsibly and diligently monitoring them. The relationship between the human brain and cognition is certainly dynamic, but change in one ultimately alters the other. It is worth addressing four general groupings of cognitive functions, two often categorized as basic (attention and memory) and two higher level cognitive functions (speech and language, as well as decision making). Here, we will speak on attention.
One of the basic cognitive functions most affected by age, attention consists of certain components which remain relatively unaffected by growing old and others that deteriorate significantly. There are multiple sub-processes that support different aspects of attentional processing and some form of attention is involved in basically every other cognitive function with the exception of the truly habitual or automatic. An inability to keep sustained attention on a given task can be exceedingly problematic in everyday life. In our effort to even define attention, there is a need to acknowledge the various ways in which it has been divided and most thoroughly investigated by the scientific community in regards to aging in humans.
Selective attention describes a skillset which empowers you to disregard irrelevant stimuli in favor of focusing on a given task. Stated simply, it is the extent to which you are able to select to what you choose to pay attention. Studies commonly examine how successful people are at finding a targeted image (often a recognizable symbol like a letter) when it is distractingly surrounded by other non-target images. The more alike the target and distractors are, the more challenging the task becomes. Alternatively, altering the proportion of target to non-target images also increases the difficulty. To be successful, you need to be able to pay attention to what is relevant and disregard everything else.
This is a situation in which every human finds his or herself immersed in nearly every minute of every day. We constantly need to focus our attention on a small handful of priorities (work, the car in front of us, the words being spoken to us) while simultaneously blocking out everything else (a conversation in the cubicle next to ours, the kids debating loudly in the backseat, or what is happening behind the person with whom we are speaking). Generally, older people respond more slowly to identifying target stimuli. However, you may be surprised to learn that the current body of science does not support the assumption that the elderly are more easily distracted. Therefore, it would seem that older adults may suffer from a general slowdown in terms of information processing, but not a decrease in their ability to selectively pay attention. Selective attention is a skill which we improve as we grow older (recall, for example, how easily distracted a kindergartner is as opposed to a high school senior). This might suggest that selective attention is, at least in part, a learned skillset and the extent to which you practice it colors both how well certain people can do it and the longevity of its prevalence.
Divided attention refers to tasks that demand simultaneous, multiple sources of information. Put another way, it’s the extent to which you are comfortable focusing on more than one thing at once. Many studies ask participants to do several tasks at the same time, or perhaps keep track of two different target images in two different places. Scientists have identified the concept of a “cost” of dividing attention, and asses it by comparing how well people perform dual tasks with how successful task completion is when done separately. Older individuals do tend to struggle more when it comes to dividing their attention, and the disparity between age groups only grows with the intensity of the tasks. When given instructions to allocate different priorities to different tasks, older adults have also exhibited more trouble appropriately divvying up their attention. The elderly are also slower at changing mental sets to switch from one task to a completely different one.
A third category of attention under study is often called sustained attention. This refers to the ability to concentrate on a given task over a long period of time. Studies examine if there is any difference between the extent to which an older person can focus on a single activity over time as opposed to a young person. Generally, the science indicates that there is no discernable difference.
The good news is that older adults tend to retain their ability to excel at tasks which require sustained attention or singularly focused attention. There is, generally, a decline in the speed of information processing, but older folks are not vastly more likely to be distracted than a younger counterpart. However, as you age, studies do suggest that there will likely be a significant drop in your ability to divide your attention or switch between multiple inputs. Essentially, young people tend to make better multitaskers.
Fortunately, these differences between the young and the old in both their ability to divide attention and switch attention can be reduced by extended training. It is important to prioritize these endeavors, given how severely a person’s ability to pay attention in all situations impacts daily life. Consider, for instance, driving. Being behind the wheel of a car demands constantly switching attention between different external inputs, which becomes harder as the years advance. However, even in old age, the parts of the brain which learn to complete tasks automatically with practice can still be highly functional. This can alleviates some of the burden on attention in certain situations. Otherwise, you can still reduce the attentional demands of certain task by simply becoming more familiar with them.
Research has also indicated that cardiovascular exercise can be quite helpful. Aerobic activity change the middle-frontal and superior regions of the brain, which control things like focus, spatial attention, and decision-making. A study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science concluded that cardio for just 40 minutes per week resulted in a larger volume of neurons in the part of the brain that controls learning and memory. Although the exact mechanic in this process are still not fully understood, the current scientific consensus definitely suggests that going for a run is not just a great for your body, but also really good for your mind.