Older Folks, College Kids Make Decisions Just as Quickly: Study

Finding runs counter to notion that thought processes slow down with age

TUESDAY, Jan. 3, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Good news for seniors: Your decision-making skills may be as quick and sharp as college students, researchers report.

Their accumulated data suggests that older people who remain mentally healthy are potentially as capable as younger people when it comes to thinking fast without making mistakes.

Ratcliff and his colleagues report their findings in the current online issue of Child Development.

"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," study co-author Roger Ratcliff, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, said in a journal news release. "At least in some situations, 70-year-olds may have response times similar to those of 25-year olds."

The researchers analyzed the results of word accuracy and symbol-based cognitive (thinking) testing among very young children (as young as the second grade). They found that response time in decision-making starts out more slowly and less accurately in children compared with adults, but goes on to improve by the time people reach college age.

"Younger children are not able to make as good of use of the information they are presented, so they are less accurate," Ratcliff explained. "That improves as they mature."

Ratcliff's group also pointed to prior research involving the same type of cognitive testing conducted among three age groups: college-aged students, adults aged 60 to 74, and adults aged 75 to 90.

In that instance, the results suggested that while accuracy was comparable across age groups, college students tended to respond more quickly than seniors.

But, when the seniors were actively prodded to respond more quickly, they proved capable of doing so --- just as speedily as those in their 20s.

While noting that some aspects of mental processing do suffer with age (such as "associative memory"), the team concluded that getting old does not necessarily mean losing one's ability to think fast and well.

"The older view was that all cognitive processes decline at the same rate as people age," Ratcliff 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."

More information

There's more on how the brain changes with age at the University of Southern California.

SOURCE: Child Development, news release, Dec. 26, 2011
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