Monday, August 23, 2021

Some Key Mental Abilities Seem to Improve as We Get Older, Proving Aging Isn't All Bad

The human mind is more resistant to the march of time than conventional wisdom suggests. Like a fine wine, some parts even get better with age.

As our brains inevitably grow older, some of our mental power is destined to fade, like spatial visualization or our mind's processing speed. Yet research has found there are other mental abilities that can improve with time, such as vocabulary and verbal comprehension.

New research among 702 participants aged 58 to 98 has now identified two fundamental brain functions that seem to get stronger as we get older.

The study had participants complete an Attention Network Test (ANT), whereby volunteers are shown a central arrow and two flanking arrows on a computer screen and asked to press a button corresponding to the central arrow's orientation as fast as they can.

A variety of cues were flashed on the screen before each arrow was shown. These included either no cue, a cue for an oncoming arrow, and a cue that hints as to where an oncoming arrow should be.

Comparing the response times of all their participants and controlling for a variety of confounding factors, researchers found older volunteers were not as good at staying vigilant in the task. They didn't respond as well to the time cue, which meant they were less prepared for the next arrow.

That said, when it came to cues that shifted the brain's attention to look at a particular point on the screen, older people seemed to be better at orienting their attention as they aged, and this was true right up until quite old age.

The older the individual, the better they also tended to be at canceling out distracting or conflicting cues that appeared on screen – a skill that improved at least until a person's mid-to-late 70s.

The researchers were testing participants' brain processes associated with alerting (being prepared to adapt to new information), orienting (shifting the brain's resources to specific locations in space), and executive inhibition (blocking out distractions to focus on something).

"We use all three processes constantly," explains psycholinguist João Veríssimo from the University of Lisbon, Portugal.

"For example, when you are driving a car, alerting is your increased preparedness when you approach an intersection. Orienting occurs when you shift your attention to an unexpected movement, such as a pedestrian. And executive function allows you to inhibit distractions such as birds or billboards so you can stay focused on driving."

The current research suggests older individuals might be slower to respond to novel situations while driving a vehicle, but they are better at staying focused and orienting their attention where needed on the road.

This ability to control one's attention is considered a higher-order brain function, and while the authors are not suggesting all executive functions remain intact or even improve in a person's 70s, it seems at least some do.

Nor is it just in the car where these forms of attention are useful. Researchers say orienting and executive control of attention are also critical aspects of memory, decision making, self-control, navigation, math, language, and reading.

"These results are amazing, and have important consequences for how we should view aging," says neuroscientist Michael Ullman from Georgetown University.

"People have widely assumed that attention and executive functions decline with age, despite intriguing hints from some smaller-scale studies that raised questions about these assumptions. But the results from our large study indicate that critical elements of these abilities actually improve during aging, likely because we simply practice these skills throughout our life."

The findings run contrary to a dozen or so other tests that have found aging impacts all three aspects of attention.

But as the authors of the current study point out, these previous trials had relatively small sample sizes and often failed to control for other factors, like sex and education.

What's more, almost all of them compared younger and older adults to each other, as opposed to focusing on the age range of interest.

Some researchers argue this is a mistake, as it means we could be overlooking variability within the age group of interest, especially since most cognitive changes don't come about until middle age rolls around.

The new research seeks to make up for these limitations. Its findings will need to be further explored, but it suggests not all forms of attention fade with age.

Because orienting attention and inhibiting attention are skills that can improve with lifelong practice, it makes sense that they would get stronger as we age.

Meanwhile, staying vigilant is a state that can't exactly be improved with practice, meaning it is more likely to decline over time.

The way that our minds change with age is clearly not as simple as we once assumed. The very same sample of participants in this study was also found to show strong declines in working memory in another study, which the authors say underscores the clear complexity of the aging brain.

"The findings not only change our view of how aging affects the mind, but may also lead to clinical improvements, including for patients with aging disorders such as Alzheimer's disease," says Ullman.

The study was published in Nature Human Behavior.


Greece extends border wall to deter Afghans trying to reach Europe

Greece said it has completed a 25-mile (40km) wall on its border with Turkey and installed a new surveillance system to prevent possible asylum seekers from trying to reach Europe after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s sweeping advance last week has sparked fears that Europe could face a migrant crisis similar to that in 2015, with people fleeing persecution or further conflict.

Greece’s citizens’ protections minister, Michalis Chrisochoidis, said the country had taken action to stop a repeat of scenes six years ago. A fence of almost eight miles had already been in place.

“We cannot wait, passively, for the possible impact,” Chrisochoidis said. “Our borders will remain safe and inviolable.”

The Greek government said last week it would not allow refugees to cross into Europe through and would turn people back. “Our country will not be a gateway to Europe for illegal Afghan migrants,” the migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, said in a statement.

The issue was raised by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on Friday in a discussion with the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Erdoğan said Afghanistan and Iran – a key route for Afghans into Turkey – should be supported or a new migration wave was certain, according to a statement from his office.

More than 1 million people escaping war and poverty in the Middle East crossed over from Turkey into the EU in 2015 – including in boats over the Aegean Sea. About 60,000 stayed in Greece as more travelled north into other countries.

Turkey struck a deal in 2016 to stem the flow of migrants in exchange for financial support. Any arrivals who did not apply for asylum or had claims rejected would be sent back to Turkey.


Austria's Kurz says he opposes taking in any more Afghans

Austria's conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz opposes taking in any more people fleeing Afghanistan now that the Taliban have seized power, he said in remarks published on Sunday.

Austria took in more than one percent of its population in asylum seekers during Europe's migration crisis in 2015 and 2016, and Kurz has built his career on taking a hard line on immigration, winning every parliamentary election since 2017.

While the European Union grapples with what to do with Afghans who assisted it over the past 20 years, Kurz said coming to Austria was not an option.

"I am clearly opposed to us now voluntarily taking in more people and that will not happen during my chancellorship," Kurz said in an interview with TV channel Puls 24. Excerpts of the interview were released before it was broadcast later on Sunday.

Austria has more than 40,000 Afghan refugees, the second-biggest number in Europe after Germany, which has 148,000, according to data from the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR for 2020. Austria's population is nine times smaller than Germany's.

Austria is also a neutral country and not a member of NATO. It sent only a very small number of troops to Afghanistan. NATO's website lists it as having sent 16 troops for the Resolute Support Mission, an effort to train and advise the Afghan security forces.

"I am not of the opinion that we should take in more people. Quite the opposite," Kurz said of Afghans fleeing their country.

"Austria has made a disproportionately large contribution," he added, referring to the large number of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers already in the country.

He said people fleeing Afghanistan should stay in the region, adding that neighbouring Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan had only taken in 14 and 13 Afghan refugees respectively, which matches the UNHCR data.


Patagonia pulls products from ski resort that hosted MAGA event

Outdoor clothing company Patagonia has pulled out of supplying a Wyoming ski resort after it hosted an event starring firebrand congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, according to reports.

Patagonia, a California-based company known for supporting progressive issues, confirmed on Tuesday that it would no longer sell its products at three stores in Teton Village, an area of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, according to Wyofile.

It follows an event on 5 August featuring Ms Greene and members of the so-called “Freedom House Caucus”, who are supportive of former US president Donald Trump, and further a number of conspiracies popular with “MAGA” (Make America Great Again) crowds.

Admission to the event allegedly cost as much as $2,000 (£1,467), and included Mr Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows and congressman Jim Jordan, of Ohio. It was thought to have raised funds for the group.

A Patagonia spokesperson said the company was joining “with the local community that is using its voice in protest” against Justin Hole for hosting the group of Republicans, after a handful of locals protested the MAGA event earlier this month.

“We will continue to use our business to advocate for stronger policies to protect our planet, end hate speech and support voting rights and a strong democracy,” the spokesperson added.

Jackson Hole said it was "proud to be the largest mountain resort operating on 100 per cent wind today, and that “we will remain focused on operating a world-class mountain resort and protecting the health and safety of our guests and employees”.

All three Republicans who appeared on 5 August have been accused of following the former president by claiming the US election was “rigged”, and of failing to protect the environment or voting rights for Americans.

Members of congress including Ms Greene have also furthered Covid-related conspiracies.




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