Although healthy older adults score higher on measures of mental well-being than younger adults, they have more trouble with distracted thinking, resulting in poorer cognitive performance, according to a new study. Yet the aging brain may attempt to make up for this loss of function, researchers say.

Investigators from the University of California, San Diego, aimed to examine the interplay between cognition and mental health during the aging process. To do so, participants’ brain activity was measured while they performed cognitively demanding tasks. Participants also were given standardized tests of mental health that measured symptoms of anxiety, depression, loneliness and overall mental well-being.

The younger adults had significantly worse symptoms of anxiety, depression and loneliness, while the older cohort had much greater well-being, reported Jyoti Mishra, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry. But the older group’s cognitive task performance was relatively poorer, she added.


In addition, electroencephalography (EEG) recordings showed that older adults had greater activity in anterior portions of the brain’s default mode network. This group of brain areas is usually suppressed during goal-oriented tasks and is associated with rumination, daydreaming or mind-wandering.

This finding may explain why the older adults could not compete with their younger cohort, who by contrast had greater involvement of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, part of the brain’s executive control system. The executive control system is involved in focusing attention and juggling multiple tasks successfully, among other functions.

Another difference stood out as well. The older adults with better cognitive performance had greater brain activity in the inferior frontal cortex, an area that helps guide attention and avoid distractions.

Since the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is known to degrade with aging, the results may signal that older adults are compensating for this by using their increased inferior frontal cortex more, theorized Mishra and colleagues.


The researchers are now studying potential therapeutic interventions that would strengthen the brain networks that aid focus and attention, and suppress those that distract.

“These findings may provide new neurological markers to help monitor and mitigate cognitive decline in aging, while simultaneously preserving well-being,” Mishra concluded.

Full findings were published in Psychology and Aging.

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