Nearly all people experience some form of cognitive decline in later life. They have a harder time remembering names and dates and perform worse on tests, as seen in many studies. Yet in the workplace and daily life, many older people function just fine.
Three papers published in July 2014 in Perspectives on Psychological Science propose some explanations for this disconnect by looking at how people compensate for cognitive losses.
The first paper, by a psychology researcher at North Carolina State University, suggests that older people cope with declining cognition— notably reduced ability to focus on complex mental tasks, switch between tasks, and retain good working memory—via “selective engagement.”
That is, they become increasingly selective so that they don’t expend their mental resources on tasks that are too demanding or not relevant to them. This helps them perform better on personally meaningful tasks and may account for the discrepancies between cognitive performance in research settings and the real world.
On the down side: The types of demanding mental tasks that older people may increasingly avoid actually benefit cognitive health in the long term. This is similar to what happens in the physical realm when older people limit challenging activities because of declines in muscle strength and stamina. “Use it or lose it” applies to the brain as well as muscles.
In the second paper, researchers from Duke University discuss how “episodic memory” needed for remembering daily events tends to decline in later years, but the ability to use general knowledge usually continues to improve. They focused on how older people use prior knowledge to fill in the gaps resulting from failure of short-term memory. “Sometimes knowledge compensates for age-related declines in episodic memory, helping older adults match or even surpass the performance of younger adults,” the authors conclude.
In the final study, Canadian researchers questioned the conventional wisdom that older people are more susceptible to consumer fraud as a result of cognitive changes that, in effect, may make them too trusting.
Their analysis suggests that older people are less likely to be victims of fraud than their younger counterparts. Possible protective factors in older age include the accumulated wisdom that comes from lifelong experience as well as greater caution in general.
In other words, younger people need to hold on to their wallets just as carefully as their parents and grandparents do.