By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
Shifts in cognitive skills and abilities continue beyond adolescence and extend across the life span. Different skills peak at different ages; you are better at some things at a given age, but worse at others. Although researchers aren’t yet sure what leads to these different peaks, it may be a result of changes in brain structure that occur naturally with age.
Fluid Intelligence and Crystallized Intelligence
With age, we tend to solve problems more slowly than when we were younger and have some trouble remembering information. Psychologists refer to these types of skills that are stronger in our younger years as fluid intelligence.
What causes these declines in thinking? One explanation is that with age, we have more stuff to remember. So, when we are asked for information, it may take us longer to find, to retrieve, that information. Younger people not only tend to have faster reaction times but also have less information stored.
However, the good news is that older adults score just as well, and sometimes even better than younger people on tests of crystallized intelligence. This type of intelligence describes the ability to use skills, knowledge, and experience. In fact, the peak age for this type of skill occurs in the late 60s or early 70s.
Dementia in People
Although we often associate aging with memory loss, this is not typical or normal, especially for people younger than 85. In fact, only a relatively small number of older adults develop dementia, which is a neurocognitive psychological disorder, and not a normal part of cognitive development.
People with dementia experience a general and typically gradual decrease in the ability to think and remember. Someone with dementia may have trouble with many common daily life tasks, such as finding their way home after taking a short walk. But it’s important to remember that dementia is not an inevitable part of the aging process, although it does get more common at older ages. Only about 3% of people ages 65 to 74 have dementia, and only about 19% of those between ages 75 and 84. Even among people in late adulthood, those 85 and older, only about 30% develop dementia.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Consequences of Negative Expectations
So, aging seems to have an impact on speed of processing, but not on our overall mental abilities. However, messages in magazines, television shows and movies overwhelmingly suggest that aging means becoming more forgetful and befuddled. There is even a distinct name for the supposed memory loss that occurs with age: ‘Senior moments’.
Unfortunately, these negative expectations about aging can have real and serious consequences, even though they aren’t accurate. For example, researchers in one study asked older adults, ages 62 to 84, and younger adults, ages 18 to 30, to read one of three fake newspapers articles. One of these articles emphasized the typical age-related decline in memory. Another article emphasized more positive findings about the memory-age link, sharing that the degree of memory loss is to a certain extent under control of the environment and the individual. A third, neutral, article contained no specific information about the memory-age link.
People in all three groups then completed a standard memory task in which they studied a list of 30 words for two minutes and then had to write down as many words as they remembered. Regardless of which article they’d read, younger adults remembered about 60% of the words on the test. But for older adults, the article really mattered. Older adults who read the neutral or positive article remembered about 57% of the words; so, basically, they did the same as the younger adults. Older adults who read the article emphasizing the negative effects of aging on memory only remembered 44% of the words.
This study illustrates a really important finding. It tells us that negative stereotypes have a much stronger impact on cognitive abilities than any inherent biological processes.
Effects of Negative Stereotypes
Even subliminal cues that remind older adults of the negative stereotype can worsen memory performance. In one study, older adults, ages 60 and above, were subliminally primed with one of two types of words. Some people were exposed to positive age-related stereotypes—wise, insightful, accomplished; others were exposed to negative age-related stereotypes—senile, confused, decrepit.
All participants then completed a standard series of memory tasks. Did subliminal primes matter? In a word, yes. People exposed to negative age-related primes performed worse on the memory tasks than those who were exposed to positive age-related primes.
These studies all tell us that what is so often portrayed as an inevitable decline in cognitive skills with age is in fact far more a function of societal stereotypes than actual biological processes.
Staying Strong Mentally
Research in psychology provides science-based strategies we can all use to stay mentally strong throughout the lifespan and counteract the negative stereotypes about aging.
First, keep learning and encourage others around you to keep learning. People who regularly engage in mentally-stimulating activities and learn new things—doing puzzles, taking courses, and so on—are less likely to develop serious cognitive problems with memory, including dementia. This type of mental stimulation goes a long way toward helping people maintain high levels of cognitive function even in older adulthood.
Second, change your stereotypes. Many of the images offered in the media bolster negative stereotypes about aging. But the good news is that counteracting these images can help create more optimistic—and frankly realistic—views about growing older. One study of 60 countries during a five-year period from 2010 to 2014 found that countries with older political leaders also tended to have more positive views of older adults. This suggests that highly prominent role models have the potential to change people’s perceptions about aging.
Research examining what people at different ages tend to remember shows identical findings: Older people are better at remembering positive than negative events. In other words, older adults tend to deliberately focus their attention and memory on the good, whereas younger people tend to focus on the bad.
Common Questions about Shifts in Cognitive Skills and Abilities
Psychologists refer to the types of skills that are stronger in our younger years as fluid intelligence. These include things like solving problems and remembering information.
Crystallized intelligence describes the ability to use skills, knowledge, and experience. The peak age for this type of skill occurs in the late 60s or early 70s.
People with dementia experience a general and typically gradual decrease in the ability to think and remember.