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Cognitive Changes During Aging

16 February, 2016 - 09:24

The changes associated with aging do not affect everyone in the same way, and they do not necessarily interfere with a healthy life. Former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr celebrated his 70th birthday in 2010 by playing at Radio City Music Hall, and Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger (who once supposedly said, “I’d rather be dead than singing ‘Satisfaction’ at 45”) continues to perform as he pushes 70. The golfer Tom Watson almost won the 2010 British Open golf tournament at the age of 59, playing against competitors in their 20s and 30s. And people such as the financier Warren Buffet, U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, and actress Betty White, each in their 80s, all enjoy highly productive a nd energetic lives.

Researchers are beginning to better understand the factors that allow some people to age better than others. For one, research has found that the people who are best able to adjust well to changing situations early in life ar e also able to better adjust later in life (Rubin, 2007; Sroufe, Collins, Egeland, & Carlson, 2009). 1 Perceptions also matter. People who believe that the elderly are sick, vulnerable, and grumpy often act according to such beliefs (Nemmers, 2005), 2 and Levy, Slade, Kunkel, and Kasl (2002) 3 found that the elderly who had more positive perceptions about aging also lived longer.

In one important study concerning the role of expectations on memory, Becca Levy and Ellen Langer (1994) 4 found that, although young American and Chinese students performed equally well on cognitive tasks, older Americans performed significantly more poorly on those tasks than did their Chinese counterparts. Furthermore, this difference was explained by beliefs about aging—in both cultures, the older adults who believed that memory declined with age also showed more actual memory declines than did the older adults who believed that memory did not decline with age. In addition, more older Americans than older Chinese believed that memory declined with age, and as you can see in Figure 6.6, older Americans performed more poorly on the memory tasks.

Figure 6.6
IsMemory Influencedby CulturalStereotypes? Levy and Langer (1994)foundthat althoughyounger samplesdid not differ, older Americansperformed significantlymorepoorly onmemory tasksthandid older Chinese,andthat these differencesweredue to different expectations aboutmemory inthetwocultures.

Whereas it was once believed that almost all older adults suffered from a generalized memory loss, research now indicates that healthy older adults actually experience only some particular types of memory deficits, while other types of memory remain relatively intact or may even improve with age. Older adults do seem to process information more slowly—it may take them longer to evaluate information and to understand language, and it takes them longer, on average, than it does younger people, to recall a word that they know, even though they are perfectly able to recognize the word once they see it (Burke, Shafto, Craik, & Salthouse, 2008). 5 Older adults also have more difficulty inhibiting and controlling their attention (Persad, Abeles, Zacks, & Denburg, 2002), 6 making them, for example, more likely to talk about topics that are not relevant to the topic a t hand when conversing (Pushkar e t al., 2000). 7

But slower processing and less accurate executive control does not always mean worse memory, or even worse intelligence. Perhaps the elderly are slower in part because they simply have more knowledge. Indeed, older adults have more crystallized intelligence—that is, general knowledge about theworld, as reflected in semantic knowledge, vocabulary, and language. As a result, adults generally outperform younger people on measures of history, geography, and even on crossword puzzles, where this information is useful (Salthouse, 2004). 8 It is this superior knowledge combined with a slower and more complete processing style, along with a more sophisticated understanding of the workings of the world around them, that gives the elderly the advantage of “wisdom” over the advantages of fluid intelligence—theabilityto thinkand acquireinformation quicklyand abstractly—which favor the young (Baltes, Staudinger, & Lindenberger, 1999; Scheibe, Kunzmann, & Baltes, 2009). 9

The differential changes in crystallized versus fluid intelligence help explain why the elderly do not necessarily show poorer performance on tasks that also require experience (i.e., crystallized intelligence), although they show poorer memory overall. A young chess player may think more quickly, for instance, but a more experienced chess player has more knowledge to draw on. Older a dults are also more effective at understanding the nuances of social interactions than younger a dults are, in part because they have more experience in relationships (Blanchard-Fields, Mienaltowski, & Seay, 2007). 10