Aging Brains Match Youth in Some Mental Tasks

(Image credit: Dreamstime.)

Since physical abilities decline as people age, many people think the elderly are also less able to perform mental jumping jacks as they age. New research indicates this might not be true with all brain-powered tasks: In some ways the elderly are fit to compete with their younger counterparts.

Both young and old brains take longer to reach decisions in some settings, the researchers say, because they make the conscious choice to choose accuracy over speed.

"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 researcher Roger Ratcliff, of Ohio State University, said in a statement. "At least in some situations, 70-year-olds may have response times similar to those of 25-year olds." [5 Reasons Aging Is Awesome]

Brain games

The researchers studied how people of different ages performed when put through a battery of cognitive tests , which included guessing the number of asterisks on a screen (fewer or more than 50) and identifying strings of letters as either words or non-words.

The new research added young kids into the mix, from elementary-school age through college age. They found the very young kids slower at decision-making tasks, with performance improving with older groups. "Younger children are not able to make as good of use of the information they are presented, so they are less accurate," Ratcliff said. "That improves as they mature."

Individuals aged 60 and older also had a slower response time for these tasks, but the researchers found that instead of just taking longer to follow the same thought process as young people, the older people took longer to make sure they responded accurately. These older people even could be trained to respond quicker in some decision-making tasks without hurting their accuracy, similarly to younger adults.

"Older people don't want to make any errors at all, and that causes them to slow down. We found that it is difficult to get them out of the habit, but they can with practice," study researcher Gail McKoon, also from Ohio State, said in a statement. "For these simple tasks, decision-making speed and accuracy is intact even up to 85 and 90 years old."

Memory in old age

Some memory tasks do decline with age, though. "If you look at aging research, you find some studies that show older people are not impaired in accuracy, but other studies that show that older people do suffer when it comes to speed," Ratcliff said.

Previous research has shown that a mental facility called "associative memory" — remembering two connected memories together — declines as people age. There's still hope for other types of brain tasks, though. Perhaps not all brainpower declines at the same rate in the aging brain, the researchers suggest.

"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."

The study was published in the January issue of the journal Child Development.

You can follow LiveScience staff writer Jennifer Welsh on Twitter @microbelover. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Jennifer Welsh

Jennifer Welsh is a Connecticut-based science writer and editor and a regular contributor to Live Science. She also has several years of bench work in cancer research and anti-viral drug discovery under her belt. She has previously written for Science News, VerywellHealth, The Scientist, Discover Magazine, WIRED Science, and Business Insider.