Aging can make learning new skills difficult due to loss of executive function.

Aging can make learning new skills difficult due to loss of executive function.

The Challenges of Aging and Technology: Maintaining Executive Function Skills

elderly using technology

Technology has undoubtedly revolutionized our lives, making daily tasks easier and more efficient. From paying bills to ordering food and streaming movies, we can do it all with a single touch of a button on our phones or tablets. We can even rely on virtual assistants to handle these tasks for us. However, for older adults, keeping up with the constant updates and new technologies can be challenging and even stressful. As cognitive abilities decline with age, learning new skills becomes increasingly difficult.

Executive function skills are crucial in our ability to learn, plan, and manage everyday tasks. Working memory, a key component of executive function, allows us to retain new information and utilize it while performing tasks or acquiring new knowledge. Unfortunately, studies show that working memory tends to decline as we age, although the extent of decline varies among individuals.

As working memory declines, so does our ability to learn new things. Decision-making becomes slower, reaction times decrease, and thinking becomes compromised. This decline may be attributed to the loss of a cognitive function called “alerting,” which prepares the brain to receive and process new information. According to João Veríssimo, an assistant professor at the University of Lisbon in Portugal, alerting is particularly susceptible to age-related decline, causing older adults to take longer to respond to cues.

Moreover, the constant influx of new information makes it challenging for older adults to discern what is legitimate and what may be scam or misinformation. This susceptibility to scams further highlights the importance of maintaining cognitive function in an increasingly digital world.

So, what can we do to prevent the loss of executive function skills? One crucial factor is maintaining good blood pressure control. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a strong risk factor for dementia, and it is even more strongly associated with the loss of executive function than memory. Research suggests that Black individuals, who experience more severe hypertension at an earlier age than their white counterparts, are twice as likely to experience cognitive decline as they age.

Higher levels of education can also play a protective role against cognitive decline. According to a study led by Veríssimo in 2018, women with more years of education experience less decline in working memory as they age. Education can help build cognitive reserves, potentially mitigating the effects of aging on executive function.

While working memory itself may not be regained once lost, there is evidence to suggest that other aspects of executive function that aid in learning can be improved. For example, the ability to block out distractions can be honed through practice, at least until a person reaches their 70s. Engaging in activities such as learning a new foreign language and maintaining social connections has been shown to help preserve cognitive function.

Ultimately, as we age, it is essential to prioritize and focus on aspects of executive function that can be improved through experience. By engaging in activities that challenge and stimulate our cognitive abilities, we may be able to maintain and even enhance our overall cognitive function.

elderly on the beach

Key Takeaways

  • Aging can pose challenges when it comes to learning and using new technologies.
  • Executive function skills, including working memory, are crucial for everyday tasks and learning.
  • Working memory declines with age, making it more difficult to learn new information.
  • “Alerting,” a cognitive function that prepares the brain for new information, is particularly susceptible to age-related decline.
  • Maintaining good blood pressure control and pursuing higher levels of education can help protect against cognitive decline.
  • While working memory itself may not be regained, other aspects of executive function that aid in learning can be improved through practice and engagement in stimulating activities.
  • Learning new languages and staying socially active are examples of activities that can help preserve cognitive function.

By Laura Williamson, American Heart Association News