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 September 12, 2022 in the journal Psychology and aging
We wanted to better understand the interplay between cognition and mental health through aging, and whether they rely on the activation of similar or different brain areas. »
Jyoti Mishra, PhD, lead author, director of NEATLabs, and associate professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine.
The study involved 62 healthy young adults in their twenties and 54 healthy adults over the age of 60. The researchers assessed the participants’ mental health by studying symptoms of anxiety, depression, loneliness and general mental well-being. Participants also performed several cognitively demanding tasks, while their brain activity was measured by electroencephalography (EEG).
The results showed that symptoms of anxiety, depression and loneliness were significantly worse in younger people and mental well-being was better in older adults. Yet when it comes to cognition, task performance was significantly lower in older adults.
EEG recordings revealed that during the tasks, older adults showed greater activity in earlier parts of the brain’s default mode network. This group of brain areas is typically active when a person is ruminating, daydreaming, or wandering, and is usually suppressed during goal-oriented tasks.
“The Default Mode Network is useful in other contexts because it helps us process the past and imagine the future, but it distracts us when we’re trying to focus on the present to complete a demanding task with speed.” and precision,” Mishra said.
While the default mode network seemed to interfere with cognition, several other areas of the brain seemed to improve it. Better performance on tasks in young adults was associated with greater activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is part of the brain’s executive control system. In contrast, in older adults, those with better cognitive performance showed greater activity in the lower frontal cortex, an area that helps guide attention and avoid distractions.
Since the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is known to degrade with aging, the researchers suggest that the increased activity of the lower frontal cortex could be a way for older adults to compensate during these tasks.
The team is now investigating therapeutic interventions aimed at strengthening these frontal networks, such as brain stimulation methods, while removing the network from the default mode through mindfulness meditation or other practices that orient individuals to the present.
“These results could provide new neurological markers to monitor and mitigate cognitive decline during aging, while preserving well-being,” Mishra said.
The study could also inspire new ways to approach the mental health of young adults. “We tend to think of young people in their twenties as being at the peak of their cognitive performance, but this is also a very stressful time in their lives. When it comes to mental wellbeing, perhaps there are lessons to be learned from older adults and their brains,” Mishra said.
University of California San Diego
Grennan, G. et al. (2022) Separable neural mechanisms of cognition and well-being in young people in relation to healthy aging. Psychology and aging. doi.org/10.1037/pag0000710.