Cognitive Changes during Middle Adulthood

Elucidate the cognitive changes during middle adulthood.

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During middle adulthood, cognition begins to stabilize, reaching a peak around the age of 35. The various components of the human cognitive structure that undergoes changes during middle adulthood includes – intelligence (fluid intelligence, crystallized intelligence and practical intelligence), memory (short term and long term memory) and creativity. These are discussed in detail below:

1. Intelligence

· Instead of declining sharply with age, many intellectual abilities seem to remain quite stable across the entire life span. In fact, they show relatively little change until persons are well into their sixties, seventies, or beyond. Some abilities even seem to increase.
· Crystallized intelligence – the ability to draw on previously learned information as a basis for making decisions or solving problems - grows steadily throughout middle adulthood and even after that. (e.g., Lerner, 1990; Willis & Nesselroade, 1990).

· Fluid intelligence – the ability to form concepts, reason, and identify similarities - is more dependent on basic information processing skills and starts to decline even prior to mid-adulthood. It increases upto early 20s and then gradually declines.
· Cognitive processing speed slows down during this stage of life, as does the ability to solve problems and divide attention.
· Practical intelligence increases with age (e.g., Sternberg et al., 1995). These skills are necessary to solve real-world problems and figure out how to best achieve a desired goal.
· Intellectual abilities do not decline overall, although speed of processing (or reaction time) does slow down. Compared to a younger adult, a middleaged person may take a little longer to solve a problem. However, a middle-aged person also has more life experience and knowledge to bring to bear on a problem, which counters the lack of speed.
· In one study (Salthouse, 1984), for example, older typists were found to outperform younger typists, even though they typed more slowly than the younger subjects. The older typists, because of years of practice, had developed a skill of looking farther ahead in the document they were typing, so that they could type more continuously without looking back at the document. This allowed them to complete their typing more quickly than the younger typists.

2. Memory

Changes in memory ability are probably the most noticeable changes in middle-aged cognition.
· Research on short-term memory indicates that older people seem able to retain just as much information in this limited-capacity system as young ones—seven to nine separate items (Poon & Fozard, 1980).
· When information in short-term memory must be processed—as, for example, when you try to solve anagrams (word puzzles) in your head—older persons sometimes perform more poorly than younger ones (Babcock & Salthouse, 1990).
· If they must perform several short-term memory tasks in a row, older persons often show a greater decline on later tasks than young persons (e.g., Shimamura & Jurica, 1994).
· As we grow older, our ability to deal with the effects of proactive interference—interference with materials we are currently entering into short-term memory from materials we entered earlier—declines (e.g., Shimamura et al., 1995).
· Thinking about the positive events of the past aids the formation of newer memories—the areas of the brain that are linked to processing emotional content seem to have a strong connection to the areas of the brain responsible for memory formation (Addis et al., 2010).
· Long –term memory: Where relatively meaningless information such as nonsense syllables is concerned, young people do sometimes have an edge. This is especially true with respect to recall—the ability to bring previously memorized information to mind. Performance on such tasks does seem to decline with age (Hultsch & Dixon, 1990). The differences are smaller and less consistent with respect to recognition—the ability simply to tell whether or not information being presented has been presented before.
· For many tasks involving long-term memory, there does seem to be some decline in performance with increasing age. Such effects are less apparent, however, when the information being committed to memory is meaningful—for instance, when it has some connection to individuals’ everyday life or to information they want to remember. Here differences between younger and older persons are much smaller and in some studies do not appear at all (e.g., May, Hasher, & Stoltzfus, 1993).

3. Creativity

Creativity refers to the ability to generate novel methods of dealing with old situations or the ability to deal with novel situations.
As measured by standard laboratory tasks (such as coming up with novel ways of using everyday objects), creativity does decline with age (Simonton, 1990).
While the age at which peak creativity occurs varies greatly across fields, many creative persons—for example, psychologists—make their key contributions when they are in their forties and fifties (Simonton, 1990). While the number of creative accomplishments decreases with age, their quality does not.

Preventing negative impact of age on cognitive abilities 

People who exercise their mental abilities have been found to be far less likely to develop memory problems or even more serious senile dementias, such as Alzheimer’s, in old age (Ball et al., 2002; Colcombe et al., 2003; Fiatarone, 1996). “Use it or lose it” is the phrase to remember.Working challenging crossword puzzles, for example, can be a major factor in maintaining a healthy level of cognitive functioning. Reading, having an active social life, going to plays, taking classes, and staying physically active can all have a positive impact on the continued well-being of the brain (Bosworth & Schaie, 1997; Cabeza et al., 2002; Singh-Manoux et al., 2003).

* * *

The overall pattern of evidence suggests that few intellectual abilities decline sharply with age. Some do decrease—especially ones closely related to speed of responding. But others remain quite stable over many years, and others may actually increase as individuals gain in experience. While there is a decline in some aspects of memory, in generally exercising memory reduces the impact. While fluid intelligence may decline, crystallized intelligence remains stable and practical intelligence improves with age. Laboratory experiments suggest a decline in creativity with age. Aging is inevitable, but our minds can remain active until the very end of life.

Psychology, Saundra K. Cicarelli and Glenn E. Meyer (Click for eBook)
Psychology, Robert Baron (Click for eBook)

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