Newswise – Young and old can learn a thing or two from each other, at least when it comes to mental health and cognition.
In a new study, published Sept. 12, 2022 in Psychology and AgingResearchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine found that healthy older adults exhibit greater mental well-being but poorer cognitive performance than younger adults. The underlying neural mechanisms may inspire new interventions to promote healthy brain function.
“We wanted to better understand the interplay between cognition and mental health in aging, and whether they depend on activation of similar or different brain regions,” said senior author Jyoti Mishra, PhD, director of the NEATLabs and associate professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego School. of Medicine.
The study included 62 healthy younger adults in their 20s and 54 healthy older adults over 60. Researchers evaluated the participants’ mental health by examining symptoms of anxiety, depression, loneliness and general mental well-being. Participants also performed several cognitively demanding tasks while their brain activity was measured using electroencephalography (EEG).
The results showed significantly worse symptoms of anxiety, depression and loneliness in young people and greater mental well-being in older adults. But when it came to cognition, task performance was significantly lower in older adults.
EEG recordings revealed that older adults showed more activity in anterior regions of the brain’s default mode network during the tasks. This group of brain regions is usually active when a person is brooding, daydreaming, or wandering, and is usually suppressed during goal-oriented tasks.
“The default mode network is useful in other contexts, as it helps us process the past and envision the future, but it’s distracting if you’re trying to focus on the present to do a demanding task quickly and accurately.” perform,” says Mishra.
While the default mode network seemed to interfere with cognition, several other brain regions seemed to enhance it. Better task performance in younger adults was associated with more activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, part of the brain’s executive control system. In the older adults, however, those with better cognitive performance showed more activity in the inferior frontal cortex, an area that helps direct attention and avoid distraction.
The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is known to deteriorate with age, so the researchers suggest that the increased activity of the inferior frontal cortex may be a way for older adults to compensate during these tasks.
The team is now investigating therapeutic interventions to enhance these frontal networks, such as brain stimulation methods, while also suppressing the default mode network through mindfulness meditation or other practices that orient individuals to the present.
“These findings may provide new neurological markers to track and reduce cognitive decline with aging, while simultaneously preserving well-being,” Mishra said.
The study may also inspire new ways to address the mental health of younger adults. “We tend to think of people in their twenties as having the best cognitive performance, but it’s also a very stressful time in their lives, so when it comes to mental wellbeing, lessons can be learned from older adults and their brains.” said Mishra.
Co-authors of the study include Gillian Grennan, Pragathi Priyadharsini Balasubramani, Nasim Vahidi, Dhakshin Ramanathan and Dilip V. Jeste, all of UC San Diego.
Funding for the study came in part from the National Institute of Mental Health (grant T32-MH019934), the Interdisciplinary Research Fellowship in NeuroAIDS (grant R25MH081482), the Stein Institute for Research on Aging at UC San Diego, the Brain Behavior Research Fund, the Kavli Foundation, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award for Medical Scientists, and the Sanford Institute for Empathy and Compassion.
Full study: https://doi.org/10.1037/pag0000710
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