Ageing is an inevitable part of life, but our brains have learned some useful tricks to help hold off the effects as much as possible, according to new research.
As we get older, the way we mentally categorise information changes – or, to put it another way, older people appear to make up for slower cognitive responses by concentrating harder.
"These results indicate that elderly subjects compensate for cognitive decline through enhanced perceptual and attentional processing of individual stimulus features," writes the team from Ruhr University Bochum (RUB) in Germany in their recent paper.
The researchers enlisted 17 young subjects and 10 elderly subjects for the study, and the participants were asked to sort circles with various colour combinations into their correct categories.
Some colour combinations were very similar, while others were quite different, and those involved were given feedback on where each circle belonged as the test progressed.
Both younger and older volunteers had no problem sorting out the circles that looked similar, but the elderly group found it more difficult to sort the distinct-looking circles.
"There are two main strategies which we use to categorise things," explains one of the researchers, Sabrina Schenk. "While we perceive similar looking members of a category holistically, we must specifically learn exceptions and memorise them. Older people find it harder to switch from one strategy to the other."
Eye trackers and an EEG machine for measuring brain waves were used to track their progress, and revealed that the elderly group was using a particular kind of selective attentiveness, paying more attention to details, and looking more closely than the younger group.
"To a certain extent, the brain is able to slow down negative effects of ageing by increasing its level of attentiveness," says Schenk.
In other words, there might be less brain power to go around, but it's targeted more effectively.
The researchers suggest that their study backs up the idea that we learn initially through abstraction-based processing - selecting only the relevant bits of information initially - and afterwards through an exemplar-memorisation stage (comparing new stimuli with everything we already know about).
The next step for the team would be to demonstrate the same effects in a much larger sample size, which could lead to techniques to help the elderly train their attentiveness.
One way to look into this could be by studying people already used to that kind of training - such as keen video game players.
In the meantime, don't worry too much about the process of growing older - even if you're not feeling great about it, your brain is working on ways to cope. And it's never too late to enjoy the benefits of keeping your brain active.
The findings are published in Neuropsychologia.