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decorative star graphic  Late Adulthood:
Cognitive Development
- Reasoning Changes -

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  • Primary aging, a consequence of inevitable neuropsychological & biological changes, may cause declines in cognitive functioning.
  • Secondary aging that is not necessarily associated with age may also cause it, or the causes may not be physiological at all.  They may be psychosocial, including discouraging self-perceptions and diminished opportunities for learning.
  • Priming:  using one event, clue, or past accomplishment to make it easier to remember another one.

Reasons for the perceived & actual decline in cognitive functioning follow.

•  Stereotyping (psychosocial factors)
 •  Problems with Laboratory Research
  •  Changes in the brain


  • When the elderly expect to lose their intellectual power, they can easily be hurt by being stereotyped.
  • Being stereotyped has the most impact when it is taken as a personal attack.
  • People aged 50 to 70 tend to overestimate the memory skills they had in young adulthood, selectively forgetting their earlier forgetfulness.
  • More common is exaggeration of memory deficit, which can create a loss of confidence that impairs memory.
  • Older adults perform better on cognitive tests when they see words that reflected positive stereotypes versus negative stereotypes.
  • Considering the influence of stereotyping & setreotype threat; it seems clear that negative culture attitudes lead directly to impaired thinking in the elderly. This influence is independent from the effect of any neurological deficits caused by primary or secondary aging.

Problems with Laboratory Research

  • Some research producers exaggerate cognitive declines because their designs inadvertently "stack the deck" against older people.
  • Memory tests traditionally use items that are fairly meaningless, perhaps a string of unrelated words or numbers.
  • Also the tests of intelligence are designed to be culture-neutral, but they use very general - often vague - items!
  • Laboratory experiments do not reflect differences in context and motivation.
  • Most experiments are constructed to exclude spontaneous priming, depriving older adults of a useful cognitive tool.

Changes in the Brain

•  The brain in late adulthood is notably smaller than in early adulthood. The elderly lose at least 5% of brain weight and 10% of overall brain volume.
•  Beginning in the late 50s the brain’s communication process slows down significantly. Slow down is apparent in reaction time.
•  After age 60 the rate of neurons death increases.
•  A lot of information is too fast for the elderly to comprehend: The aged need more time simply to reach the level of cognition as younger adults.
Ψ  A terminal decline (a.k.a. terminal drop) is an overall slowdown of cognitive abilities in the weeks & months before death.

Brain Compensation

  • Researchers now recognize that intellectual activity is not directly related to size, weight, or number of brain cells. Except in cases of extreme malformation, damage or disease.
  • Because dendrites (nerve fibers) continue to grow when brain cells die they may make up for some of the loss of neurons & allow older adults to think as well as they once did.
  • A recent discovery shows that some neuron rejuvenation does occur.
  • Nevertheless, compensation is limited, because slower reactions are inevitable with age. This means that slower cognition is inevitable as well.

Growth & Development
Robert C. Gates
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