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Older brains are slower - but wiser

Published Oct 25, 2011


London - It is the evidence parents have longed to arm themselves with in disputes with their children - getting older really does make you wiser.

The over-55s use their brains more efficiently than their younger counterparts, as they are much more likely to shrug off mistakes, say scientists.

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And while they may take more time to come to a decision, they are simply conserving their energy.

Younger people, by contrast, give the impression of being sharper, simply by coming up with answers more quickly. But this, say the researchers, may be a sign of inexperience rather than wisdom.

The Canadian scientists set two groups of participants tasks that involved sorting words into pairs, and scanned their brains as they completed them.

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The tasks included pairing words according to category or initial letter and picking out words that rhymed.

Initially, they were not told what sort of pair to look for. Instead, the game helped them work it out by telling them if they had made the right choice or not. Over time, the categories were changed.

Neuro-imaging scans revealed striking differences between the brains of the older and younger participants when they made a mistake.

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In the younger ones, the error instantly activated several different parts of the brain to help them decide what to do next.

The older people, however, held their fire until the game restarted. Only then did they start thinking about what they were going to do.

Study author Dr Oury Monchi, of the Institute of Geriatrics at the University of Montreal, said: “When the young participants made a mistake and had to plan and execute a new strategy to get the right answer, various parts of their brains were recruited even before the next task began.

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“However, when the older participants learned that they had made a mistake, these regions were only recruited at the beginning of the next trial, indicating that with age, we decide to make adjustments only when absolutely necessary.”

He added: “The older brain has experience and knows that nothing is gained by jumping the gun. We now have neurobiological evidence showing that with age comes wisdom and that as the brain gets older, it learns to better allocate its resources.”

Dr Monchi compared the results to Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare, saying: “Being able to run fast does not always win the race - you have to know how to best use your abilities.

“This adage is a defining characteristic of ageing. It is as though the older brain is more impervious to criticism and more confident than the young brain.”

Overall, the older group, who were aged between 55 and 75, took longer to complete the game but did roughly as well as those aged 18 to 35, the journal Cerebral Cortex reported. - Daily Mail

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