9.10: Cognitive Development in Late Adulthood

Learning Objectives: Cognitive Development in Late Adulthood

  • Describe how memory changes for those in late adulthood
  • Describe the theories for why memory changes occur
  • Describe how cognitive losses in late adulthood are exaggerated
  • Explain the pragmatics and mechanics of intelligence
  • Define what is a neurocognitive disorder
  • Explain Alzheimer’s disease and other neurocognitive disorders
  • Describe work and retirement in late adulthood
  • Explain how those in late adulthood use strategies to compensate for losses

How Does Aging Affect Information Processing?

There are numerous stereotypes regarding older adults as being forgetful and confused, but what does the research on memory and cognition in late adulthood reveal? Memory comes in many types, such as working, episodic, semantic, implicit, and prospective. There are also many processes involved in memory, thus it should not be a surprise that there are declines in some types of memory and memory processes, while other areas of memory are maintained or even show some improvement with age. In this section, we will focus on changes in memory, attention, problem solving, intelligence, and wisdom, including the exaggeration of losses stereotyped in the elderly.


Changes in Working Memory: As discussed in chapter 4, working memory is the more active, effortful part of our memory system. Working memory is composed of three major systems: The phonological loop that maintains information about auditory stimuli, the visuospatial sketchpad, that maintains information about visual stimuli, and the central executive, that oversees working memory, allocating resources where needed and monitoring whether cognitive strategies are being effective (Schwartz, 2011). Schwartz reports that it is the central executive that is most negatively impacted by age. In tasks that require allocation of attention between different stimuli, older adults fair worse than do younger adults. In a study by Göthe, Oberauer, and Kliegl (2007) older and younger adults were asked to learn two tasks simultaneously. Young adults eventually managed to learn and perform each task without any loss in speed and efficiency, although it did take considerable practice. None of the older adults were able to achieve this. Yet, older adults could perform at young adult levels if they had been asked to learn each task individually. Having older adults learn and perform both tasks together was too taxing for the central executive. In contrast, working memory tasks that do not require much input from the central executive, such as the digit span test, which uses predominantly the phonological loop, we find that older adults perform on par with young adults (Dixon & Cohen, 2003).


Elder woman wearing glasses and looking away
Figure 9.24: Older adults experience changes in memory.

Changes in Long-term Memory: As you should recall, long-term memory is divided into semantic (knowledge of facts), episodic (events), and implicit (procedural skills, classical conditioning and priming) memories. Semantic and episodic memory are part of the explicit memory system, which requires conscious effort to create and retrieve. Several studies consistently reveal that episodic memory shows greater age-related declines than semantic memory (Schwartz, 2011; Spaniol, Madden, & Voss, 2006). It has been suggested that episodic memories may be harder to encode and retrieve because they contain at least two different types of memory, the event and when and where the event took place. In contrast, semantic memories are not tied to any particular time line. Thus, only the knowledge needs to be encoded or retrieved (Schwartz, 2011). Spaniol et al. (2006) found that retrieval of semantic information was considerably faster for both younger and older adults than the retrieval of episodic information, with there being little difference between the two age groups for semantic memory retrieval. They note that older adults’ poorer performance on episodic memory appeared to be related to slower processing of the information and the difficulty of the task. They found that as the task became increasingly difficult, the gap between each age groups’ performance increased for episodic memory more so than for semantic memory.

Studies which test general knowledge (semantic memory), such as politics and history (Dixon, Rust, Feltmate, & See, 2007), or vocabulary/lexical memory (Dahlgren, 1998) often find that older adults outperform younger adults. However, older adults do find that they experience more “blocks” at retrieving information that they know. In other words, they experience more tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) events than do younger adults (Schwartz, 2011).

Implicit memory requires little conscious effort and often involves skills or more habitual patterns of behavior. This type of memory shows few declines with age. Many studies assessing implicit memory measure the effects of priming. Priming refers to changes in behavior as a result of frequent or recent experiences. If you were shown pictures of food and asked to rate their appearance and then later were asked to complete words such as s_ _ p, you may be more likely to write soup than soap, or ship. The images of food “primed” your memory for words connected to food. Does this type of memory and learning change with age? The answer is typically “no” for most older adults (Schacter, Church, & Osowiecki, 1994).

Image of a notepad with a sticker "don't forget!"
Figure 9.25: Aids for prospective memory.

Prospective memory refers to remembering things we need to do in the future, such as remembering a doctor’s appointment next week, or to take medication before bedtime. It has been described as “the flip-side of episodic memory” (Schwartz, 2011, p. 119). Episodic memories are the recall of events in our past, while the focus of prospective memories is of events in our future. In general, humans are fairly good at prospective
memory if they have little else to do in the meantime. However, when there are competing tasks that are also demanding our attention, this type of memory rapidly declines. The explanation given for this is that this form of memory draws on the central executive of working memory, and when this component of working memory is absorbed in other tasks, our ability to remember to do something else in the future is more likely to slip out of memory (Schwartz, 2011). However, prospective memories are often divided into time-based prospective memories, such as having to remember to do something at a future time, or event-based prospective memories, such as having to remember to do something when a certain event occurs. When age-related declines are found, they are more likely to be time-based, than event-based, and in laboratory settings rather than in the real-world, where older adults can show comparable or slightly better prospective memory performance (Henry, MacLeod, Phillips & Crawford, 2004; Luo & Craik, 2008). This should not be surprising given the tendency of older adults to be more selective in where they place their physical, mental, and social energy. Having to remember a doctor’s appointment is of greater concern than remembering to hit the space-bar on a computer every time the word “tiger” is displayed.

Recall versus Recognition: Memory performance often depends on whether older adults are asked to simply recognize previously learned material or recall material on their own. Generally, for all humans, recognition tasks are easier because they require less cognitive energy. Older adults show roughly equivalent memory to young adults when assessed with a recognition task (Rhodes, Castel, & Jacoby, 2008). With recall measures, older adults show memory deficits in comparison to younger adults. While the effect is initially not that large, starting at age 40 adults begin to show declines in recall memory compared to younger adults (Schwartz, 2011).


Elder woman smiling with her hands in the air
Figure 9.26: The age advantage.

The Age Advantage: Fewer age differences are observed when memory cues are available, such as for recognition memory tasks, or when individuals can draw upon acquired knowledge or experience. For example, older adults often perform as well if not better than young adults on tests of word knowledge or vocabulary. With age often comes expertise, and research has pointed to areas where aging experts perform quite well. For example, older typists were found to compensate for age- related declines in speed by looking farther ahead at printed text (Salthouse, 1984). Compared to younger players, older chess experts focus on a smaller set of possible moves, leading to greater cognitive efficiency (Charness, 1981). Accrued knowledge of everyday tasks, such as grocery prices, can help older adults to make better decisions than young adults (Tentori, Osheron, Hasher, & May, 2001).


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Lifespan Development - A Psychological Perspective by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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