Could life experience make up for some of the effects of age on the brain? According to researchers from the School of Business Administration at the University of California, Riverside, it can and does. The research group measured a person’s decision making ability over their entire lifespan. Using two difference types of intelligence - fluid and crystallized - they found that experience and acquired knowledge from a lifetime of decision-making often offset the declining ability to learn new information.
Fluid intelligence is the ability to learn and process new information. Crystallized intelligence is experience and accumulated knowledge.
According to the researchers, previous studies have suggested that fluid intelligence declines as a person ages, but the studies didn’t address whether or not decision-making abilities also decline.
For this study, the research team recruited 336 participants of which 173 were between 18 and 29 years of age and 163 were between 60 and 82. These participants were asked to answer a series of questions designed to measure decision-making traits that pertain to economic decisions such as aversion to loss, and financial and debt literacy. The participants also completed a series of fluid and crystallized intelligence tests.
Results of the study showed that most older participants performed just as well or better than the younger participants in all decision-making aspects of the tests.
Cognitive changes with Alzheimer’s disease:
The researchers conducting fluid vs. crystallized intelligence study recruited adults with normal aging issues such as slowed recall. If they’d used people who were showing signs of Alzheimer’s or other dementia, the results of the study would have been skewed.
For example, while someone who is aging in a typical manner may make an occasional error in balancing a checkbook, someone developing Alzheimer’s may begin to do so regularly. If the person was once good with numbers, that’s an even greater sign that abnormal changes in the brain are taking place.
The same idea would be true about making poor decisions. An occasional poor decision may be typical of anyone, aging or otherwise, while consistently making damaging decisions is a sign that something serious is happening.
As the University of California, Riverside study concluded, people who are aging in a typical manner have brains that can compensate for some losses due to aging. People who are developing Alzheimer’s disease, however, won’t show this compensation because the disease is limiting their ability to use information that they’ve learned. Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t harm a person’s intelligence, but it can alter the ability of the person to access this knowledge.
According to the study, most people who are aging in a healthy manner can actually make more sound decisions in financial matters than many of their younger counterparts. It stands to reason, then, that the information could provide one more tool for doctors as they work to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.
Whiteman, H. (2013, September 30) Life experience ‘offsets age-related cognitive decline’. MedicalNewsToday.com Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/266680.php
Alzheimer’s Association. 10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Retrieved from http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_10_signs_of_alzheimers.asp
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.