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Trajectories and Contributing Factors of Neural Compensation in Healthy and Pathological Aging.

Neural degeneration is a hallmark of healthy aging and can be associated with specific cognitive impairments. However, neural degeneration per se is not matched by unremitting declines in cognitive abilities. Instead, middle-aged and older adults typically maintain surprisingly high levels of cognitive functioning, suggesting that the human brain can adapt to structural degeneration by neural compensation. Here, we summarize prevailing theories and recent empirical studies on neural compensation with a focus on often neglected contributing factors, such as lifestyle, metabolism and neural plasticity. We suggest that these factors moderate the relationship between structural integrity and neural compensation, maintaining psychological well-being and behavioral functioning. Finally, we discuss that a breakdown in neural compensation may pose a tipping point that distinguishes the trajectories of healthy vs pathological aging, but conjoint support from psychology and cognitive neuroscience for this alluring view is still scarce. Therefore, future experiments that target the concomitant processes of neural compensation and associated behavior will foster a comprehensive understanding of both healthy and pathological aging.

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