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Think Fast! Seniors May Not Slow Down As Much As You Think

Last updated:

December 28, 2011
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Healthy older people can think almost as quickly as college students, says a new study published in Cognitive Psychology.

According to Roger Ratcliff, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, "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."

Ratcliff and his team asked participants from different age groups -- including very young children, older children, college students, 60-74 year olds, and 75-90 year olds -- to complete cognitive tasks. One test required participants to look at a computer screen with a certain number of asterisks and gauge as quickly as possible whether there were 31-50 or 51-70 asterisks on the screen. Another test asked participants to look at a string of letters and determine whether they spelled an English word. Ratcliff and his team recorded both speed and accuracy.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the oldest and youngest age groups took the longest to complete their tasks. However, the youngest participants scored very low on accuracy, while the oldest participants were quite accurate.

Gail McKoon, also from Ohio State University and a co-author of the study, said that older adults may appear to think more slowly simply because they choose to emphasize accuracy over speed.

"Older people don't want to make any errors at all, and that causes them to slow down," said McKoon. "We found that it is difficult to get them out of the habit, but they can with practice."

According to PsychCentral, when researchers encouraged the older participants to speed up, their response times approached those of college students.

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