Here’s Where Our Minds Sharpen in Old Age
Some of us enjoy getting beaten hollow by our kids in a game of FIFA on the Playstation but we also get reminded at how our reflexes have slowed with age. Whether its sport or driving or memory, popular understanding is that ageing slows us down. However, this piece in the Nautilus points to a new study which shows there are certain types of cognitive abilities which don’t deteriorate but indeed might get better with age.
“The broad strokes of the traditional thinking on lifespan psychology is that people improve in all kinds of cognition until their early 20s. After that, “fluid” intelligence, which includes thinking about new things, thinking quickly, and abstract reasoning, gradually declines until the end of life. “Crystalized” intelligence, on the other hand, which is characterized by wisdom, knowledge, and expertise at things one practices often, continues to improve with age, but with slower returns as we get older. This continues into your 70s, after which things begin to decline.
But, as cognitive psychologists have suggested, some of the aspects of fluid intelligence, such as attention, can be broken down into component parts—like alerting, orienting, and executive control. Alerting covers one’s vigilance and preparedness for responding to information coming in. This is important for driving, for example. Orienting is one’s ability to select some perceptual information over others based on what’s important. Executive control refers to one’s ability to inhibit all the information that orienting deemed unimportant, such as the conversations at other tables in a restaurant. These abilities are somewhat independent, and even involve different neural substrates. “Given that these attention/executive functions show neurocognitive differentiation,” Verssimo and his colleagues write, “we suggest that they may also show distinct susceptibilities to aging.”
Does age affect fluid intelligence broadly, as has been traditionally believed? Or, given that these components are anatomically distinct, might aging affect each one differently?
To find out, Verssimo and his colleagues used a common measurement tool, the Attention Network Test, which provides individual scores for alerting, orientation, and executive function. As expected, older people are slower in general, as measured by their response time in the task (how fast they hit a button in response to something on the screen), at the rate of an average increase of 6.3 milliseconds per additional year of age. But there were differences in the components: alerting got worse with increasing age but orienting, and the ability to inhibit irrelevant information, got better. There are ways we get smarter with age, even in the domain of fluid intelligence.”