Summary: Significantly worse symptoms of depression, anxiety and loneliness were observed in younger people, while older people showed greater mental well-being. However, when it came to cognition, task performance was worse in older adults.
Young and old could learn a thing or two from each other, at least when it comes to mental health and cognition.
In a new study, published on September 12, 2022 a Psychology and aging, researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine found that healthy older adults show greater mental well-being but lower 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 during aging, and whether they are based on the activation of similar or different brain areas,” said lead author Jyoti Mishra, PhD, director of the NEATLabs and associate professor of psychiatry at UC San. Faculty of Medicine Diego.
The study sampled 62 healthy younger adults in their 20s and 54 adults over 60. The researchers assessed the participants’ mental health, examining symptoms of anxiety, depression, loneliness and general mental well-being. Participants also performed various cognitively demanding tasks while their brain activity was measured using electroencephalography (EEG).
The results showed significantly worse symptoms of anxiety, depression and loneliness in youth and greater mental well-being in older adults. However, when it came to cognition, task performance was significantly lower in older adults.
EEG recordings revealed that during the tasks, older adults showed greater activity in the anterior parts of the brain’s default mode network. This group of brain areas is typically active when an individual is ruminating, daydreaming, or mind wandering, and is typically suppressed during goal-directed tasks.
“The default mode network is useful in other contexts, helping us process the past and imagine the future, but it’s distracting when you’re trying to focus on the present to tackle a demanding task quickly and accurately,” Mishra said.
While the default mode network appeared to interfere with cognition, several other areas of the brain appear to enhance it. Better task performance in younger adults was associated with greater 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 greater activity in the inferior frontal cortex, an area that helps guide attention and avoid distractions.
The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is known to degrade with aging, so the researchers suggest that increased activity in the inferior frontal cortex may be a way for older adults to compensate during these tasks.
The team is now studying therapeutic interventions to strengthen these frontal networks, such as brain stimulation methods, while 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 help monitor and mitigate the cognitive decline of aging, while 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 being at their peak cognitive performance, but it’s also a very stressful time in their lives, so when it comes to mental wellbeing, there may be lessons to be learned from older adults. and their brains,” Mishra said.
Study co-authors include Gillian Grennan, Pragathi Priyadharsini Balasubramani, Nasim Vahidi, Dhakshin Ramanathan and Dilip V. Jeste, all at UC San Diego.
Funding: Funding for the study came, in part, from the National Institute of Mental Health (grant T32-MH019934), the Interdisciplinary Research Grant in Neurosis (grant R25MH081482), the Stein Institute for Research on Aging from UC San Diego, Brain Behavior Research. Fund, the Kavli Foundation, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award for Medical Scientists, and the Sanford Institute for Empathy and Compassion.
About this research news on cognition, psychology and aging
Author: Scott La Fee
Source: Scott La Fee – UCSD
Image: The image is in the public domain
Original research: Closed access
“Dissociable neural mechanisms of cognition and well-being in young versus healthy aging” by Grennan, G et al. Psychology and aging
Dissociable neural mechanisms of cognition and well-being in young versus healthy aging
Mental health, cognition, and their underlying neural processes in healthy aging are rarely studied simultaneously. Here, in a sample of healthy young adults (n = 62) and more (n = 54) adults, we compared subjective mental health and objective global cognition in several core cognitive domains with simultaneous electroencephalography (EEG).
We found significantly greater symptoms of anxiety, depression and loneliness in young people and, in contrast, greater mental well-being in older adults. However, overall performance in core cognitive domains was significantly worse in older adults. EEG-based source images of global processing evoked by cognitive tasks showed reduced suppression of activity in the anterior medial prefrontal default mode network (DMN) region in older adults relative to young adults.
Efficiency of global cognitive performance was predicted by greater activity in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in younger adults and, conversely, by greater activity in the right inferior frontal cortex in older adults. Furthermore, greater mental well-being in older adults is related to less overall task-evoked activity in the posterior DMN.
Overall, these results suggest dissociated neural mechanisms underlying global cognition and mental well-being in young versus healthy aging.
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