Not every mental skill suffers equally. Vocabulary, for instance, tends to remain, as do skills practiced for a long time, like playing the piano or using a spreadsheet. You might even improve at some things: In tests of experienced crossword puzzlers of all ages, the best were in their 60s and 70s.
Potential. The more scientists learn about the brain's decay, the more curious they've become about how well people function anyway. Even among people 85 and older, only 18.2 percent live in nursing homes. "In the past, much of the research has focused on disease and decline," says Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University. "Now we're looking at the concept of potential and how older people often continue to thrive and grow even in the face of the most serious illness." Recent studies of both animal and human subjects have found that several factors go hand in hand with better mental performance, including education, professional success, and intellectual, social, and physical activities. A 2003 study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, for example, found that people over 75 who danced, read, or played board games or musical instruments also had a lower rate of dementia.
Much of the work has focused on finding ways to bulletproof people against Alzheimer's. In mice, an Alzheimer's vaccine seemed to work, but it proved toxic in humans and trials were suspended (although research on vaccines continues). Beta carotene supplements may delay cognitive decline if taken for many years—but only by a year and a half. Education seems to lower your odds of Alzheimer's—but even some Nobel laureates develop it. Cholesterol-lowering drugs seemed to offer some promise in fending off Alzheimer's, but a 12-year-long study published in January showed they had no effect. For now, experts think the best approach is to take the sorts of steps that Conte is taking to delay normal cognitive decline.
Stretch the plastic. For decades, scientists assumed that humans were born with all the brain cells they'd ever have. Then, in the 1970s, researchers showed that new brain cells and neural pathways form through the end of life. "This was the beginning of the brain plasticity movement," says Cohen, "the understanding that when we challenge our brains, the brain cells sprout new dendrites, which results in increased synapses, or contact points." More recent research has shown that there isn't an age limit: Training older adults in certain memory tasks, like remembering faces and names, seems to boost those specific abilities—though it won't remind you to bring your shopping list to the store. And the newest evidence suggests that intensive practice in reasoning skills or in distinguishing sounds appears to lead to more generalized improvements in brain function.
In 2006, for example, a controlled clinical study of more than 2,000 older people by researchers at Pennsylvania State University, Indiana University, Johns Hopkins University, and elsewhere found that those who received 10 60-to-75-minute training sessions in reasoning—specifically, in recognizing word, number, and letter patterns and filling in the next item in a series—reported less difficulty with such activities of daily living as understanding instructions on a medication label. The effects still were apparent five years later. This past November, scientists from the University of Southern California and the Mayo Clinic announced that study subjects who spent an hour a day for eight to 10 weeks using a program that asked them to recognize subtle differences in sounds performed better than the control group on memory and speed tests, too. Designers of the Brain Fitness Program (made by Posit Science, which funded the study) claim that such ear training causes the brain to convey information more precisely from one region to another—which, in turn, improves other types of thinking.