“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,” Roger Ratcliff, professor of psychology at Ohio State University, said in a press release.
“At least in some situations, 70-year-olds may have response times similar to those of 25-year-olds.”
Or even seven-year-olds.
Ratcliff and his colleagues found that both young children and seniors have slower response times when they have to make snap decisions, but that’s because both groups are choosing accuracy over speed.
Their research suggests that older adults, like second- and third-graders, may take longer in some cognitive skills tests because they want to be sure they get it right.
But what about those college-age whippersnappers? In cognitive tests with college students, seniors were slower but just as accurate as their 20-something counterparts.
In a study published in the journal Cognitive Psychology, the Ohio State researchers compared college-age subjects with two groups of older adults — ages 60 to 74, and ages 75 to 90 — in performing simple cognitive tests, like deciding if a string of letters is a word in English or not.
The researchers found little difference in accuracy among the groups, including the oldest participants. However, speed-wise, the college students were faster in their responses than the 60-to-74-year-olds, who were in turn faster than the 75-to-90-year-olds.
Aging does affect some kinds of decision-making accuracy, Ratcliff noted. In other kinds of cognitive tests, when older people had to recall if they had studied a pair of words or not, they were less likely to remember than younger adults.
But Ratcliff believes his research suggests greater optimism about the cognitive skills of seniors.
“The older view was that all cognitive processes decline at the same rate as people age,” he said. “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.”