Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Myth of Age-Related Cognitive Decline

Older men at coffee, aging, age-related decline 

Getting older and slower may just be the result of more experience than younger folk.

The tide is changing in our understanding of old age. For a long time, behavioural scientists have thought that old age is associated with cognitive decline such as memory problems, and difficulties in learning and concentration.

But in this month’s Topics in Cognitive Science, linguistics researcher Michael Ramscar and collaborators demonstrate that this way of thinking may be fundamentally wrong

Healthy ageing, Ramscar explains, may be nothing more than gaining experience, and then dealing with the consequences of having learnt from that experience:
Older adults’ changing performance reflects memory search demands, which escalate as experience grows.
In other words, as people get older, they gather more experiences, they learn more names for things, and they potentially better understand how the social and economic systems around them work – and this makes them slower.

So while youth has the benefit of speed and flexibility, age has the benefit of wisdom and guile … and slowness.

The trade-off

Some of this we already know, even if we’ve never really thought about it in this context. Years of research have shown that older people have larger vocabularies than younger people, other things being equal.

In their paper, Ramscar and associates show that even this we’ve probably underestimated, because older people tend to know a lot of very low frequency words such as “zaftig” and “arroyo” and “byzantine”, words that are difficult to test because there are so many of them. Younger people tend to know fewer of these words.

For the rest of the story:

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