Feeling in Control Boosts Brainpower in Elderly

happy elderly woman
happy elderly woman (Image credit: © Rozenn Leard | Dreamstime.com)

When the world seems like its spinning out of control around you, your brain takes a hit, new research suggests. The opposite is also true, say researchers who have found that when a person feels in control of themselves, they display heightened cognitive abilities, especially if that person is elderly.

A person's sense of control over themselves and their surroundings fluctuates more often, and more quickly, than previously thought, they added.

"This is the first time we’ve been able to see how the day-to-day changes in our sense of being in control may actually influence the way we think," study researcher Shevaun Neupert, of North Carolina State University, said in a statement.

The participants (36 adults, with an average age of 74) completed a series of tasks and questionnaires in a workbook every 12 hours for 60 days. The workbook consisted of questions asking if they felt "in control of their lives" or felt they "were able to achieve goals they set for themselves." They compared these ratings with an analysis of each participant's brain power, a measurement based on memory and inductive reasoning tests.

The study found that participants' sense of control could fluctuate significantly in the course of a single day. That is particularly interesting, given that previous research has largely focused on the presumption that one's sense of control remains relatively stable, the researchers said. They did find that brain power was boosted when a participant's sense of control was higher than usual; they also did better on the cognitive tests.

Based on their computer modeling, the study researchers suspect the improved cognitive functioning stems from the feeling of improved control, not vice versa.

"This wasn't part of the experimental design, so we can't say for sure," Neupert said. "But it is a first step toward determining which comes first — sense of control or improved cognition."

The researchers say in the paper, published online Jan. 9 in the journal Psychology and Aging, that this sense of control helps motivate the participant, enabling him or her to develop strategies to compensate for cognitive limitations or losses. For example, those who think they have more control over their performance are more likely to try harder on memory tasks, previous studies have found.

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Jennifer Welsh

Jennifer Welsh is a Connecticut-based science writer and editor and a regular contributor to Live Science. She also has several years of bench work in cancer research and anti-viral drug discovery under her belt. She has previously written for Science News, VerywellHealth, The Scientist, Discover Magazine, WIRED Science, and Business Insider.