Late Adulthood: Cognitive Development

 Changes in Information Processing 

    Though most of our intellectual abilities increase or remain stable throughout early and middle 
adulthood, once beyond the age of 60 everyone experiences a decline in all of our five primary 
mental abilities.
Five Primary Mental Abilities

    •  Verbal Meaning
            •  Spatial Orientation
                •  Inductive Reasoning
            •  Number Ability
    •  Word Fluency

    Although thinking processes become slower and less sharp once a person reaches late adulthood, 
there is much individual variation in these declines, and each particular cognitive ability shows a 
different range of age-related decline for each separate individual.

Sensory Register

    *     Senescence causes relatively small decline in the sensitivity & power of the brain's capacity of 
the sensory register. To overcome this small decline one can use techniques such as asking others to 
speak slowly or by looking longer or more intently at a significant image.
    * BUT for information to register in the first place it must cross the sensory threshold. This means that 
our sensory systems have to detect relevant sensations (which dull over time) from stimuli and this is 
where a decline in input can and will occur as we mature into our late adulthood.
    * Thus, while sensory register itself declines only a small amount, the decline in sensory acuity 
can be large. 

Working Memory
Remember that working memory has two interrelated functions:

    * Temporarily stores information so it can be used consciously
    * Processes information that is currently in conscious mind using integrative reasoning, mental 
calculations, and drawing of inferences 

    With working memory its capacity for storage and processing in late adulthood produces a noticeable 
decrease, more than any previous biosocial stage. One reason for this loss is that processing takes 
longer with age.

    Increased demands on the information-processing capacity, whether cause by the complexity of the 
task or by distractions, strain the working memory of older adults, thus making working memory the 
most substantial decline with age.

Long-Term Memory: Linking Input and Output

    Remember that knowledge base is the storehouse of al the information ever put into memory

So what happens to the knowledge base with old age?

    * When groups of older and younger adults are asked to recall something specific (historical 
events or something recently learned) the younger adults usually performed better.
    * This coincides with accumulated research, that long-term as well as short-term memory are 
diminished in older adults 

Memory takes two distinct forms (each originating in a different area of the brain)

    * Explicit Memory = memory that is easy to retrieve, usually with words. Most explicit memory 
involves consciously learned words, data, and concepts.
    * Implicit Memory = unconscious or automatic memory that is usually stored via habits, emotional 
responses, routine procedures, and various sensations. 

    For the most part, contents of implicit memory are never deliberately memorized for later recall.

    Implicit memory is much less vulnerable to age-related deficits, this is partly related to automaticity. 
Once behavior becomes well-learned, it becomes automatic and routine, easy to access when needed in 
context but beyond the verbal command of explicit memory.
   Most traditional long-term memory tests focus on explicit memory, failing to take into account the 
substantial implicit memory that an older adult might have.

Other Aspects of Cognition

    Control processes are ways people use their intellectual powers; however, with older adults they seem 
less efficient at managing control processes, especially decision making. Older adults seem to prefer NOT 
to gather and consider all relevant data, but instead rely on prior knowledge, general principles, or even 
rules of thumb.

    Two possible reasons of the decline in control processes are either that the aging brain is less capable of 
strategizing the best use of mental ability OR that older people do not know how to organize, memorize, and 
analyze information as they once did.

    "Top-down" strategy is using deductive rather than inductive reasoning" Given a diagnosis of cancer, older 
adults are more likely to arrive at a treatment decision with out getting a second opinion or seeking further 
information on medical opinions, benefits, and risks."

    The "Tip-of-the-tongue" experience becomes more common with age, usually beginning as early as the late 
30's, but it is the strategies for retrieval when having this phenomenon that worsens with age.


     Mnemonics are structured ways to help people remember & recall information.

     First Letter Mnemonics & Acronyms use the first letter of each word or phrase to be remembered to make 
a meaningful word or phrase. Each letter of the phrase then stands for one feature of the to-be-recalled

     Method of loci - the learner associates parts of the to-be-recalled material with different places (usually, 
rooms in a familiar building or sites along an often traveled road) in the order that they are to be recalled. It 
is helpful to have the learner imagine the to-be-recalled material to be interacting with features of the specific 
locations along their journey. During recall, the learner takes an imaginary walk through the building or down 
the road and retrieves the different memorial items.

     Peg method: An encoding technique that creates associations between word-number rhymes & items 
to be memorized.

     Note: Improving memory requires making the effort to use good associations, such as the elaborative 
rehearsal, which means creating good associations that in turn, produce good retrieval cues 
and improve memory.

Reasoning Changes

    * Primary aging, a consequence of inevitable neuropsychological & biological changes, may cause 
declines in cognitive functioning.
    * Secondary aging that is not necessarily associated with age may also cause it, or the causes may 
not be physiological at all.  They may be psychosocial, including discouraging self-perceptions and 
diminished opportunities for learning.
    * Priming:  using one event, clue, or past accomplishment to make it easier to remember another one. 

Reasons for the perceived & actual decline in cognitive functioning follow.

   1. Stereotyping (psychosocial factors)
   2. Problems with Laboratory Research
   3. Changes in the brain 


    * When the elderly expect to lose their intellectual power, they can easily be hurt by being 
    * Being stereotyped has the most impact when it is taken as a personal attack.
    * People aged 50 to 70 tend to overestimate the memory skills they had in young adulthood, 
selectively forgetting their earlier forgetfulness.
    * More common is exaggeration of memory deficit, which can create a loss of confidence that 
impairs memory.
    * Older adults perform better on cognitive tests when they see words that reflected positive 
stereotypes versus negative stereotypes.
    * Considering the influence of stereotyping & setreotype threat; it seems clear that negative culture attitudes 
    lead directly to impaired thinking in the elderly. This influence is independent from the effect of any neurological 
    deficits caused by primary or secondary aging. 

Problems with Laboratory Research

    * Some research producers exaggerate cognitive declines because their designs inadvertently 
"stack the deck" against older people.
    * Memory tests traditionally use items that are fairly meaningless, perhaps a string of unrelated 
words or numbers.
    * Also the tests of intelligence are designed to be culture-neutral, but they use very general 
- often vague - items!
    * Laboratory experiments do not reflect differences in context and motivation.
    * Most experiments are constructed to exclude spontaneous priming, depriving older adults of 
a useful cognitive tool. 

Changes in the Brain

    * The brain in late adulthood is notably smaller than in early adulthood. The elderly lose at least 
5% of brain weight and 10% of overall brain volume.
    * Beginning in the late 50s the brain’s communication process slows down significantly. Slow 
down is apparent in reaction time.
    * After age 60 the rate of neurons death increases.
    * A lot of information is too fast for the elderly to comprehend: The aged need more time simply to 
reach the level of cognition as younger adults. 

   Ψ  A terminal decline (a.k.a. terminal drop) is an overall slowdown of cognitive abilities in the weeks & 
   months before death. 

Brain Compensation

    * Researchers now recognize that intellectual activity is not directly related to size, weight, or 
number of brain cells. Except in cases of extreme malformation, damage or disease.
    * Because dendrites (nerve fibers) continue to grow when brain cells die they may make up for 
some of the loss of neurons & allow older adults to think as well as they once did.
    * A recent discovery shows that some neuron rejuvenation does occur.
    * Nevertheless, compensation is limited, because slower reactions are inevitable with age. This 
means that slower cognition is inevitable as well.

Cognition in Daily Life

    * To an older adult, one of the most salient changes associated with aging is cognitive decline, 
particularly memory failure.
    * Very few of the elderly actually regard their memory loss as a handicap in daily life.
    * Much of the discrepancy between the way the elderly view their memory loss and the way it is 
assessed by researchers can be attributed to the nature of the experiments used in the 
laboratory setting.
    * The use of meaningless strings of numbers and words makes it difficult for older adults to 
practice the material.
    * The less artificial the circumstances, the better an older person remembers. 

Changes in Memory & Cognition
Four general conclusions regarding age-related changes in memory & cognition are:

   1. Mental processes slow down with age.
   2. The elderly do show memory declines.
   3. The elderly are less likely to use memory strategies.
   4. Memory in late adulthood is not as weak as anticipated. 

    * Older adults are more resistant to learning new memory techniques and slower to abandon 
old techniques than are younger adults.
    * A hallmark of successful aging is, “selective optimization with compensation” - the capability 
to compensate for age-related declines in intellectual functioning; the idea that individuals set 
their own goals, assess their own abilities, and then figure out how to accomplish what they 
want to achieve despite the limitations of later life.
    * Research has shown that giving patients the freedom to make mistakes in order to preserve 
their health - therapeutic risk taking - may slow the more rapid decline observed in traditional 
nursing homes
    * The rate at which thinking slows down with age can be reduced with regular exercise 
– improving blood flow to the brain.
    * Cognitive stimulation may trigger new neural connections.
    * Its possible to slow brain deterioration by: 

        1. Eating low-fat diets that reduce arteriosclerosis
        2. By consumption of antioxidants
        3. By estrogen replacement in women
        4. The use of anti-inflammatory drugs.

Factors that have a direct impact on thinking during adulthood are:

        1. Pulmonary functioning
        2. Physical exercise
        3. Past education
        4. Individual’s sense of control 


    * Irreversible loss of intellectual functioning caused by organic brain damage or disease.

# Traditional diagnostic divisions:

    * Presenile dementia: dementia before age 60.
    * Senile dementia: dementia after age 60. 

Alzheimer’s Disease:

    * Most common form of dementia
    * Characterized by abnormalities in the brain that destroys normal brain function.
    * Causes: Environmental, Genetic, Pathological

      Stages of Development

# 1st: Absentmindedness of recent events.
# 2nd: Confusion becomes more pronounced.
# 3rd: Memory loss becomes truly dangerous
# 4th: Patient can no longer function without assistance.
# 5th: Patient is mute and non-communicative
# Final: Death normally occurs 10-15 years after stage one.

Multi-Infarct Dementia: MID

    * Dementia characterized by sporadic & progressive loss of intellectual function
    * Caused by repeated infarcts (strokes), temporary obstructions of the blood vessels that 
prevent sufficient blood from reaching the brain.
    * Produces blurred visions, shaky limbs, slurred speech and mental confusion.
    * Often the infarct is so slight that people are unaware what has happened. 


    * Arteriosclerosis ( hardening of the arteries ).
    * Poor circulation.
    * Diabetes. 

    * Exercise and a good diet lessen the possibilities of occurrence and also promote a 
quicker recovery.
    * Multiple infarcts can produce an Alzheimer’s like condition. 

Subcortical Dementia:

Causes a progressive loss of motor control but initially leaves the mental processes intact.
 Examples: Parkinson’s Disease, Huntington’s Disease, & Multiple Sclerosis.
 Link to more information on Huntington's Disease. More information on Huntington's Disease. 
 This is a dementia that is related to a physical illness. Initially the patient has full command of their 

Reversible Dementia:

Causes: Outside causal situation, patient initially does not have a physical or mental cause that would 
manifest as a dementia.

    * Side effects of a medication.
    * Alcohol abuse.
    * Mental illness.
    * Depression.
    * Head trauma. 


    * Most dementia patients go untreated because dementia is wrongfully considered a natural 
part of aging.
    * Dementia patients are often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed resulting in either no medical 
attention or the wrong type of medical attention. 

New Cognitive Development in Later Life

    Erikson finds that older adults are more interested in the arts, children and the whole of human 
experience than are younger adults.

    According to Maslow, older adults are much more likely than younger adults to reach 
self-actualization, which is defined as heightened aesthetic, creative, philosophical and 
spiritual understanding.

    Life Review: the examination of one’s own past life that many elderly people engage in; 
according to Butler, the live review is therapeutic, for it helps the older person to come to grips 
with aging and death; effort is made to connect one’s own life with future and past generations.


    * One of the most positive attributes commonly associated with older people
    * A cognitive perspective characterized by a broad, practical, comprehensive approach to 
life’s problems, reflecting timeless truths rather than immediate expediency; said to be more 
common in the elderly than in the young. 

    Paul Baltes maintains that five features distinguish wisdom from other forms of human 
understanding. They are:

    * Rich factual knowledge that concerns the broad topic of human experience
    * Knowledge of the “pragmatics of life”
    * Contextual approach to understanding life that takes into account broader ecological, 
social & historical dimensions
    * Acceptance of the uncertainty in defining & solving life’s problems
    * Recognition of individual differences in values, goals & priorities, leading to flexibility & 
relativism in tackling the contradictions of life experience. 

Excerpt - Birds of Passage

    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

But why, you ask me, should this tale be told?
To men grown old, or who are growing old?
It is too late! Ah, nothing is too late
Till the tired heart shall cease to palpitate.
Cato learned Greek at eighty; Sophocles
Wrote his grand Oedipus, and Simonides
Bore off the prize of verse from his compeers,
When each had numbered more than fourscore years,
And Theophrastus, at fourscore and ten,
Had but begun his Characters of Men.
Chaucer, at Woodstock with the nightingales,
At sixty wrote the Canterbury Tales;
Goethe at Weimar, toiling to the last,
Completed Faust when eighty years were past.
These are indeed exceptions; but they show
How far the gulf-stream of our youth may flow
Into the arctic regions of our lives.
Where little else than life itself survives.
What then? Shall we sit idly down and say
The night hath come; it is no longer day?
The night hath not yet come; we are not quite
Cut off from labor by the failing light;
Something remains for us to do or dare;
Even the oldest tree some fruit may bear;
Not Oedipus Coloneus, or Greek Ode,
Or tales of pilgrims that one morning rode
Out of the gateway of the Tabard inn,
But other something, would we but begin;
For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.

Key Questions: Cognitive Development

1. How is each part of the information-processing system - sensory register, working 
memory, knowledge base, and control processes - affected by age?

2. Compare age differenced in explicit and implicit memory.

3. What are the problems with, and the conclusions derived from, research on long 
term memory?

4. How do stereotypes about aging held by researchers, by cultures, and by individuals 
affect research on memory?

5. What are some physiological and some external reasons for age-related changes 
in cognition?

6. How true is it that everyone develops dementia if they live long enough?

7. What are the similarities of and differences between Alzheimer's disease and MID?

8. What prevents or causes the various types of dementia?

9. What are the purpose and the result of the life review?

10. In your experience when are you bored by, and when are you fascinated with, someone 
else's life story? 
                                                 Growth & Development
                                                       Robert C. Gates