One of the good things the ageing of the huge baby boomer generation has spawned is an upsurge in research about old people, particularly brain and cognition research, and I follow it closely. Well, as much as possible.
Most study results are published in expensive professional journals so I must rely on second-hand reports. Today's comes from Benedict Carey, a science reporter at The New York Times whom I have read for a long time and trust. He specializes in brain and behavior topics.
Although many cognitive skills peak early in life, a new paper, reports Carey, suggests that old brains offer different ones.
”Elements of social judgment and short-term memory, important pieces of the cognitive puzzle, may peak later in life than previously thought.”
Here's some context you need to know:
”The study evaluated historic scores from the popular Wechsler intelligence test, and compared them with more recent results from tens of thousands of people who took short cognitive tests on the authors’ websites, testmybrain.org and gameswithwords.org.”
[PERSONAL NOTE: Checking the website, I now recall taking these tests at testmybrain, so I'm one of the participants although I have no memory of my results; it was several years ago.]
A drawback of this study, says one researcher, is that the same people were not followed over many years. But the nature of these studies in general, I have found, is that they move our understanding forward in small, tentative increments. We are gradually learning more about older cognition.
”They took a large battery of tests, measuring skills like memory for abstract symbols and strings of digits, problem solving, and facility reading emotions from strangers’ eyes.”
The age of individual participants was taken into account on each test and what they found is that different abilities mature or ripen at different ages.
”The picture that emerges from these findings is of an older brain that moves more slowly than its younger self, but is just as accurate in many areas and more adept at reading others’ moods — on top of being more knowledgeable...
“No one needs a cognitive scientist to explain that it’s better to approach a boss about a raise when he or she is in a good mood. But the older mind may be better able to head off interpersonal misjudgments and to navigate tricky situations.”
“'As in, “that person’s not happy with all your quick thinking and young person’s processing speed — he’s about to punch you,”' said Zach Hambrick, a psychology professor at Michigan State University.”
As with most brain research, this study is preliminary and far from definitive. But as reporter Benedict Carey notes (more politely than I), it does give some support to that ancient joke about old age and treachery beating youth and skill.
You will find much more detail at Carey's story in The New York Times.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Sharon Ostrow: The Bear Encounter