Healthy ageing has disparate effects on different cognitive domains. The neural basis of these differences, however, is largely unknown. We investigated this question by using Independent Components Analysis to obtain functional brain components from 98 healthy participants aged 23–87 years from the population-based Cam-CAN cohort. Participants performed two cognitive tasks that show age-related decrease (fluid intelligence and object naming) and a syntactic comprehension task that shows age-related preservation. We report that activation of task-positive neural components predicts inter-individual differences in performance in each task across the adult lifespan. Furthermore, only the two tasks that show performance declines with age show age-related decreases in task-positive activation of neural components and decreasing default mode (DM) suppression. Our results suggest that distributed, multi-component brain responsivity supports cognition across the adult lifespan, and the maintenance of this, along with maintained DM deactivation, characterizes successful ageing and may explain differential ageing trajectories across cognitive domains.