Research reveals greater individual
variation in cognitive functioning in late
adulthood than at any other time of life
 Decline in speed of processing is believed
to affect many aspects of cognition in old
age
 Reduced efficiency of thinking
compromises attention, the amount of
information that can be held in working
memory, the use of memory strategies, and
retrieval from long-term memory


According to one view, elders who sustain high levels
of functioning engage in selective optimization with
compensation
› They select personally valued activities to optimize returns
from their diminishing energy
› They also come up with new ways to compensate for
cognitive losses
 Ex. An 80 year old concert pianist stated when asked how
he had managed to sustain his talents at his age that
 He was selective: he played fewer pieces
 This enabled him to optimize his energy: he could practice each
piece more
 He developed new, compensatory techniques for a decline in
playing speed: ex. Before a fast passage, he played extra slowly, so
the fast section appeared to his audience to move more quickly

The chances for memory failure increase in
older people as a result of:
›
›
›
›

Taking in information more slowly
Finding it harder to apply strategies
Higher difficulty in inhibiting irrelevant information
Higher difficulty in retrieving relevant knowledge
from long-term memory
Memory problems are especially evident on
complex tasks
› Due to a reduced capacity to hold material in
working memory while operating on it

Because older adults take in less about a stimulus and its
context, their recall is reduced in relation to that of
younger people
› Ex. When watching a movie older adults…
 Retain fewer details because of slower cognitive processing
 Attend poorly to context – where they saw the movie and who
went with them – due to their reduced working memory capacity
because they can hold on to as many pieces of information at
once
› Ex. Older adults sometimes cannot distinguish an experienced
event from one they imagined

Recognition memory suffers less in late adulthood
because:
› It is a fairly automatic type of memory that demands little mental
effort
› A multitude of environmental supports for remembering are
present

Implicit memory – automatic form of memory without
conscious awareness
› In a typical implicit memory task, you would be shown a list of
words, then asked to fill in a word fragment (such as t—K).
 You would probably complete the sentence with a word you had
just seen (task) rather than another word (took or teak)
 Without trying to do so, you would engage in recall
Age differences in implicit memory are much smaller than
in explicit, or deliberate, memory
 Memory that depends on familiarity rather than on
conscious use of strategies is also largely spared in old age

› Ex. The memory problems elders report – for names of people,
places where they put important objects, directions for getting
from one place to another, and appointments and medication
schedules – all place substantial demands on their more limited
working memories

The memory deficits just described are part of a general,
age-related decline in binding information into complex
memories
› Associative memory deficit – difficulty creating and retrieving
links between pieces of information
› Ex. Where you put your keys in your purse and where you parked
the car

Providing older adults with repeated presentations of
information to be learned and more memory cues
improves their associative memory
› Ex. To associate names with faces, memory improves with
mention of relevant facts about those individuals (they were
wearing a funny hat or they had long red hair)
 When older adults are directed to use the memory strategy of
elaboration during both study and retrieval, the difference
between young and old adults nearly disappears
› Clearly, elders’ associative deficits are greatly affected by lack
of spontaneous use of strategies that help bind information
together into integrated wholes

Remote memory – very long-term recall
›

Ex. Telling childhood stories to grandkids
Although older people often say that their remote memory is
clearer than their memory for events, research does not support
this conclusion
In several studies, adults ranging in age from 20-79 were asked to recall
names of grade school teachers and high school classmates and
Spanish vocabulary from high school (information very well learned in
early life)
› Memory declined rapidly for the first 3-6 years, then changed little for the
next 20 years, after which additional modest forgetting occurred
›


People between ages 50-90 recall both remote and recent
events more frequently than intermediate events
›
With recent events mentioned most often
›
Events occurring early in life, during times of rapid change and new
experiences that are possibly significant to identity and personality
formation, just stand out more
Why?

Prospective memory – refers to remembering to engage in
planned actions in the future
›

The amount of mental effort required determines whether older
adults have trouble with prospective memory
›

Whereas other types of memory refer to events from the past prospective
memory refers to events in the future
Ex. Remembering a dinner date may be challenging for an elderly adult
because he/she typically has dinner with his/her daughter on Thursday
nights at 6pm but this time dinner was set for Tuesday at 7:15pm
In trying to remember a future activity
›
Younger adults rely more on strategies like rehearsal
›
Older adults rely more on external aids to memory
›
Use of external aids in compensation for memory seems to be the largest
reason older adults’ deficits in prospective memory seen in the
laboratory, do not actually effect them in everyday life
 Ex. Repeating over and over “Remember to bring my text book” the night
before class
 Ex. Placing a friend’s scarf that needs to be returned next to the door the
night before seeing the friend

Like implicit memory, language comprehension
changes little in late life
› As long as partners do not speak too quickly and elders
are given enough time to process written text accurately

2 aspects of language production do show agerelated losses
› Retrieving words form long-term memory
› Planning what to say and how to say it

As with memory, older adults develop compensatory
techniques for their language production problems
› They speak more slowly and simplify their grammatical
structures so they can devote more effort to retrieving
words and organizing their thoughts
› They often compensate by representing information they
want to communicate in terms of gist rather than details
Aging brings both deterioration and adaptive changes in
problem solving
 The problematic situations the elderly encounter are often
different from those experienced at earlier ages

› Ex. After retirement, older adults do not have to deal with
workplace problems, their children are typically grown and living
on their own, and their marriages have endured long enough to
have fewer difficulties

As long as they perceive problems as under their control
and important, elders are active and effective at solving
them
› Findings indicate that older adults make quicker decisions about
whether they are ill and seek medical care sooner than younger
people
› Older adults often consult others for advice about everyday
problems, and couples more often collaborate in problem
solving
A wealth of life experience enhances the
story telling and problem solving of the
elderly
 Life experience also underlies a capacity
believed to reach its height in old age…

› Wisdom – breadth and depth of practical
knowledge, ability to reflect on that knowledge
in ways that make life more bearable and
worthwhile, emotional maturity, and an altruistic
form of creativity

Not surprisingly, cultures around the world
assume that age and wisdom go together
› But research paints a different picture

The most extensive research to date on development of wisdom
› Adults ranging in age from 20-89 responded to uncertain real-life
situations
 Ex. What to consider and do if a good friend is about to commit suicide
or if, after reflecting on your life, you discover that you have not achieved
your goals
› Responses were rated for 5 factors of wisdom
1. Knowledge about fundamental concerns of life, including human
nature, social relations, and emotions
2. Effective strategies for applying that knowledge to making life
decisions, handling conflict, and giving advice
3. A view of people that considers the multiple demands of their life
contexts
4. A concern with ultimate human values, such as the common good, as
well as respect for individual differences in values
5. Awareness and management of the uncertainties of life – that many
problems have no perfect solution
› Results revealed that age is no guarantee of wisdom
 A small number of adults of diverse ages ranked among the wise
 But type of life experience made a difference (ex. People with
experience in human services who had training in solving human
problems tended to attain high wisdom scores)
In addition to age and life experience,
having faced and over come adversity
appears to be an important contributor to
late-life wisdom
 Compared to their agemates, older adults
with the cognitive, reflective, and
emotional qualities that make up wisdom
are typically:

› Better educated and physically healthier, forge
more positive relations with others, have higher
psychological well-being, and are more open to
experience
A mentally active life – above-average education, stimulating
leisure activities, community participation, and flexible
personality – predicts maintenance of mental activities into
advanced old age
 In late adulthood, health statuses becomes an increasingly
strong predictor of intellectual performance

›

But this relationship may be exaggerated by the fact that brighter adults
are more likely to engage in health-protecting behaviors, which
postpone the onset of serious disease
Retirement also affects cognitive change, both positively and
negatively
When people leave routine jobs for stimulating leisure activities,
outcomes are favorable
› In contrast, retiring from a highly complex job without developing
challenging substitutes accelerates intellectual declines
›

As they age, elders’ scores on cognitive tasks show larger
fluctuations from one occasion to the next
›
This trend accelerates in the 70s and is associated with cognitive declines

Terminal decline – refers to marked
acceleration in deterioration of cognitive
functioning prior to death
› Including becoming less active, more
withdrawn, declines in cognitive skills
› Some studies find that it is limited to a few
aspects of intelligence
 Others find that it occurs generally, across many
abilities
› Findings also differ greatly in its estimated length
 Some report that it lasts only 1-3 years
 Others that it extends for as long as 14 years
 The average estimate is 4-5 years prior to death

The Adult Development and Enrichment Project
(ADEPT) is the most extensive cognitive intervention
program conducted to date
› By using participants in the Seattle Longitudinal Study,
researchers could assess the effects of cognitive training
on long-term development
› Intervention began with adults over age 64
 Some of whom had maintained their scores on 2 mental
abilities (inductive reasoning and spatial orientation) over
the previous 14 years
 Others who had shown declines over the previous 14 years
› After just 5 1-hour training sessions in relevant cognitive
skills, 2/3 of the participants improved their performance
› Gains for decliners were dramatic: 40% returned to the
level at which they had been functioning 14 years earlier

Another large-scale intervention study is the
ACTIVE (Advanced Cognitive Training for
Independent and Vital Elderly)
› Elders trained by researchers similarly showed an
immediate advantage in trained skills over
controls who were not trained
 Trained skills included speed of processing,
memory, or reasoning
› 5 years after the intervention, training was
associated with reduced declines in general
health and enhanced ability to engage in social
and leisure pursuits

Older adults need much the same competencies that
younger adults need to live in our complex, changing
world
› Communicating effectively through spoken and written systems,
locating information, sorting through it, and selecting what is
needed, using math strategies, etc.
In addition, the elderly also need to develop new,
problem-centered coping strategies (ways to sustain
health and operate their households efficiently and safely)
and updated vocational skills for those who continue to
work
 Participation of the elderly in continuing education has
increased substantially over the past few decades

› Successful programs include:
 A wide variety of offerings responsive to the diversity of senior
citizens
 Teaching methods suited to their developmental needs

Elderhostel programs hosted by local educational
institutions combine stimulating 1-3 week courses with
recreational pursuits
› Some programs make use of community resources through
classes on local ecology or folk life
› Others involve travel abroad
› Still others focus on innovative topics and experiences
 Ex. Writing one’s own life story, discussing contemporary films with
screenwriters, whitewater rafting, Chinese painting and
calligraphy, and acquiring French language skills
Other similar educational programs have sprung up,
including Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, located on
college campuses around the U.S.
 Community senior centers often provide inexpensive
offerings related to everyday living

› Which attract more low-SES people than more expensive
programs like Elderhostel

Elders in continuing education report a rich
array of benefits
› Learning interesting facts, understanding new ideas
in many disciplines, making new friends, and
developing a broader perspective on the world

Seniors also come to see themselves differently
› Abandoning their own stereotypes of aging when
they realize adults in late life can still engage in
complex learning

In Elderhostel, participants with the least
education report learning the most
› Which shows the importance of and argument for
recruiting less economically privileged people into
these programs