A key part of research into healthy aging has been finding ways to keep the brain healthy and active into old age. Most research in the past on this matter has tended to focus on the changes in brain function that occur much later in life. There is comparatively little research done on how brain function changes during the midlife period and even less on how these effects might compare to those observed later on. A research team from McGill University in Canada has taken this gap to heart and begun looking at the brain of middle-aged individuals. What they found is that one of the central ideas behind aging and memory may be using the wrong perspective.
The study consisted of 112 adults ranging from 19 to 76 years old. Participants were shown a series of faces and then asked to recall information about how those faces were positioned, where in the order a face might have appeared, and so on. A functional MRI was used to assess brain activity during this process.
The MRI results showed that young adults made more use of their visual cortex during the tasks, suggesting an increased focus on perceptual details. Middle-aged and older adults, however, had lower levels of visual cortex activity. Instead, their medial prefrontal cortex was used—the part of the brain that is known to be involved with personal history and introspection.
Although memory can definitely be impaired by dementia, the idea that aging causes memory to become impaired in general may not be the right way of looking at things. The study results, though small, suggest that aging does not so much cause a decline of memory but changes in what the brain considers “important” information. It is a matter of prioritizing different parts of an experience, in other words.
The research possibilities these findings open up still need to be explored, and the study itself may need replication to confirm results. However, there is some support for the ideas it presents. Mindfulness meditation is known to lead to better cognitive aging, a fact that aligns with the idea that learning to focus on external (instead of internal) information could help middle-aged and older adults with memory.
“Middle-age memory decline a matter of changing focus,” McGill University web site, July 12, 2016; https://www.mcgill.ca/newsroom/channels/news/middle-age-memory-decline-matter-changing-focus-261683, last accessed July 13, 2016.