Study suggests older adults show greater mental well-being despite cognitive decline

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Despite displaying signs of poorer cognitive performance, older adults tend to have greater mental well-being compared to younger adults, according to a new study.

A study published this month in Psychology and Aging by researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine indicates that adults over 60 showed greater mental well-being but worse cognitive performance than younger adults. Adults in their 20s tended to have more experience with anxiety, depression and loneliness than seniors.

Researchers sampled 62 healthy young adults in their 20s and 54 healthy seniors over the age of 60. The study analyzed the mental health of the participants and had them perform several cognitive tasks, using electroencephalography (EEG) to measure their brain activity. Anxiety, depression and loneliness were the mental well-being factors measured in each participant.

Older adults had more trouble completing the cognition tests but displayed higher levels of mental well-being. EEG results showed that the older participants had more activity in their anterior area of the default mode network, which is the part of the brain where individuals may daydream or ruminate. The default mode is typically suppressed when an individual is focused on a task.

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The study’s experiment showed that older adults tended to have poorer cognitive skills but greater mental well-being than younger participants.
(iStock)

“We wanted to better understand the interplay between cognition and mental health across aging, and whether they rely on activation of similar or different brain areas,” said Jyoti Mishra, PhD, director of the NEATLabs and senior author of the study, in a statement.

“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 with speed and accuracy,” Mishra added.

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On the other hand, younger adults showed more activity in their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, resulting in better performances for cognition tests. The cortex is the part of the brain with the executive control system and tends to degrade over time with age, according to the researchers. However, the older adults who did perform well on the cognitive tasks used their inferior frontal cortex, the area of the brain used to avoid distractions.

“We tend to think of people in their twenties as being at their peak cognitive performance, but it is also a very stressful time in their lives, so when it comes to mental well-being, there may be lessons to be learned from older adults and their brains,” Mishra said.

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