Elderly Brains Hold Their Own Against Youthful Ones

New study reveals that seniors can match their college-age counterparts in some cognitive tasks.
Dec 30, 2011· 1 MIN READ
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

"It's a bad business getting older, and I would advise you not to do it." - Woody Allen

Conventional wisdom dictates that the older we get, the slower and more feeble we get. While that might be true for those of us who aren't the inimitable Betty White, new research is showing that older brains can be just as accurate as young brains, even up to ages 85 and 90.

“Many people think that it is just natural for older people’s brains to slow down as they age, but we’re finding that isn’t always true,” said Roger Ratcliff, professor of psychology at Ohio State University, in a press statement.

“At least in some situations, 70-year-olds may have response times similar to those of 25-year-olds.”

The study, published in this month's Cognitive Psychology, pitted college students against aging seniors in simple cognitive tasks, like deciding whether a random string of letters was a word or not. While there was little difference in accuracy between the two groups, youth seemed to trump experience when it came to speed—at least at first. With some practice, researchers were surprised to find that seniors were able to perform the tasks just as quickly and accurately as their baby-faced counterparts.

“Older people don’t want to make any errors at all, and that causes them to slow down. We found that it is difficult to get them out of the habit, but they can with practice,” said Gail McKoon, professor of psychology and co-author of the study.

In other words, the deliberate pace of the elderly is likely a conscious decision to choose accuracy over speed (which makes sense if you've ever seen an older person drive). And while there is some natural deterioration in memory skills as we age, the results indicate that with proper practice and a healthy lifestyle, we can delay the decline of our cognitive abilities until we're well into our eighties, which is heartening news for even the most curmudgeonly of grandparents.

“The older view was that all cognitive processes decline at the same rate as people age,” said Ratcliff. “We’re finding that there isn’t such a uniform decline. There are some things that older people do nearly as well as young people.”