Summary: Significantly worse symptoms of depression, anxiety, and loneliness were seen in young adults, while older adults showed greater mental health. However, when it came to cognition, task performance was worse in older adults.
source: University of California at San Francisco
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 on September 12, 2022 in 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. Underlying neural mechanisms may inspire new interventions to promote healthy brain function.
Jyoti Mishra, senior study author, director of NEATLabs and associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, said.
The study collected samples from 62 younger healthy adults in their 20s and 54 healthy older adults over the age of 60. The researchers assessed the participants’ mental health, surveying symptoms of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and overall mental health. Participants also performed several demanding cognitive tasks while measuring brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG).
The results showed significantly worse symptoms of anxiety, depression, and loneliness in young adults and increased mental health 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 frontal parts of the brain’s default mode network. This group of brain regions is usually active when an individual is ruminating, daydreaming, or mind-wandering, and is usually 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 gets distracting when you’re trying to focus on the present to tackle a challenging task quickly and accurately,” Mishra said.
While the default mode network appears to interfere with cognition, many other areas of the brain appear to improve 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.
However, in the elderly, those with better cognitive performance showed greater activity in the inferior frontal cortex, an area that helps direct attention and avoid distractions.
The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is known to degrade with age, so researchers suggest that increased inferior prefrontal cortex activity may be a way for older adults to compensate during these tasks.
The team is now looking at therapeutic interventions to strengthen these frontal networks, such as brain stimulation methods, while also suppressing the default mode network through mindfulness meditation or other practices that direct individuals to the present.
“These findings may provide new neurological markers to help monitor and mitigate cognitive decline in aging, while at the same time maintaining 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 functioning, but it’s also a very stressful time in their lives, so when it comes to mental health there may be lessons to be learned from older adults,” Mishra said.
Study co-authors include Gillian Grennan, Pragathi Priyadarsini Balasupramani, Naseem Waheedi, Dakshin Ramanathan and Dilip V Jesty, all at the University of San Diego.
Financing: Funding for the study came, in part, from the National Institute of Mental Health (grant T32-MH019934), NeuroAIDS Interdisciplinary Research Fellowship grant (grant R25MH081482), the Stein Institute for Research on Aging at UCSD, the Brain Behavior Research Fund, the Kavli Foundation, and the Burroughs Wellcome Award Fund Career for Medical Scientists and the Sanford Institute for Compassion and Compassion.
On this realization, psychology and aging research news
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“Discrete neural mechanisms of cognition and well-being in young versus healthy agingBy Grennan, G et al. psychology and aging
Discrete neural mechanisms of cognition and well-being in young versus healthy aging
Mental health, cognition, and the neural processes underlying healthy aging are rarely studied simultaneously. Here, in a sample of younger healthy subjects (n = 62) and above (n = 54) adults, we compared subjective mental health as well as objective global cognition across several baseline cognitive domains with electroencephalography (EEG).
We found significantly greater symptoms of anxiety, depression, and loneliness in young adults, and in contrast, greater mental well-being in older adults. However, global performance across core cognitive domains was significantly worse in older adults. EEG-based source imaging of global cognitive task-evoked processing showed decreased activity suppression in the prefrontal default mode network (DMN) region in the elderly relative to the young.
Efficiency of global cognitive functioning was predicted by increased activity in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in younger adults and, in contrast, by greater activity in the right inferior frontal cortex in older adults. Furthermore, greater mental well-being in the elderly correlates with less excitatory activity of the global task in the posterior DMN.
Overall, these findings point to the separate neural mechanisms underlying global cognition and mental well-being in young versus healthy aging.