A general decline in executive control mechanisms is a common, and to a certain degree, a reluctantly accepted aspect of normal aging. Of course, there is great variance in the extent of this decline, ranging from severe debilitating in some adults, to the more acceptable mild-to-moderate decline that is the hallmark of a much larger cohort. Whereas these more
subtle deficits may not be life-threatening, they nonetheless cause real distress and negatively impact general quality-of-life and sense of well-being. Yet, there are also those elderly individuals that we all encounter, who somehow manage to retain and perhaps even improve their mental “sharpness” and flexibility over their later years. What makes these individuals special? Are there fundamental neuroprotective aspects of their biological makeup? Do they by some means escape the structural changes in frontal cortex that seem to be a factor in the
decline of executive functioning with? Recent work suggests that this is not the basis for their success; rather, one fundamental way in which these individuals stave off the negative effects of cognitive aging is by recruiting and reconfiguring executive control processes in the frontal lobes. We found clear functional evidence for additional recruitment of frontal circuits and that activity in these regions is often considerably amplified relative to that seen in healthy young adults during standard executive tasks. That there appears to be the possibility for large-scale functional plasticity during later life is surely encouraging. If it were simply the case that these adults were not as susceptible to basic structural changes, then the options for intervention in those who are susceptible might be relatively more limited. However, if cognitive strategies and neural network reconfigurations can compensate for basic structural decline, then the picture becomes more hopeful, for if we can understand these reconfigurations and perhaps the strategies that allow for them, we can potentially teach them to those who have not managed to learn them independently. Our goal is to build basic understanding of the cognitive processes and neural underpinnings that protect these high performing elderly, and also to understand what occurs in the average to low performing elderly who fail to maintain optimal performance.