Age Does Provide Some Cognitive Benefits
Contrary to conventional wisdom that cognitive function declines
beginning in the mid-forties, aging does not correlate with
deteriorating ability to think for ourselves. These are the findings of “Healthy
Brain, Healthy Decisions: The MetLife Study of Decision-Making
Potential,” one of the first projects to investigate the connection
between cognitive health, aging and decision making capacity. The
research was conducted with men and women in their 50s, 60s and 70s by
the MetLife Mature Market Institute and the Center for BrainHealth at
The University of Texas at Dallas. The study demonstrates that age alone
is not a key factor in predicting the ability to make decisions.
Focusing on healthy adults in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, the researchers
found that those who demonstrated smart decision-making also excelled at
strategic learning—the ability to sift more important information from
the less important.
Although study participants in all three life stages had about the same
strategic learning abilities, the oldest participant group slightly
surpassed the rest, implying strategic learning capacity may actually
increase with age in normally functioning adults.
Additional findings show that older study participants (those in their
70s) were more conscientious, remained vigilant (i.e., considered their
options before making a decision) and avoided being hyper-vigilant
(i.e., focused on immediate solutions without considering other
outcomes) when compared to the younger group (those in their 50s).
Researchers gauged participants’ financial conscientiousness (i.e.,
being careful and organized) using a series of questions regarding
monthly budgeting practices and financial retirement plans. The full
study, along with consumer tips Is Your Decision-Making Style
Healthy?, is available here.
The Healthy Brain, Healthy Decisions project contends that
previous large sample studies documenting declines in the ability to
think logically and solve problems, starting as early as age 40, fail to
identify individual factors which contribute to declining
decision-making capacity, such as early dementia or other medical
causes. Moreover, they ignore such positive age-related aspects as
extensive life experience, reasoning ability and accumulated knowledge
that may preserve or even enhance decision-making.
“Combining these findings with emerging evidence of retained cognitive
brain health in aging suggests that policies aimed at protecting those
most vulnerable to poor decision-making should focus on impairment
caused by an underlying medical condition, rather than age itself, as a
risk factor,” said Sandra Timmermann, Ed.D., director of the MetLife
Mature Market Institute. “Rather than attributing impaired
decision-making to age alone, approaches that assess an individual’s
strategic learning ability and cognitive function can improve our
understanding of decision-making capacity at all ages and between
“The study findings are a crucial first step to move beyond age as a
demographic factor used to explain impaired decision-making,” said
Sandra Chapman, Ph.D., founder and chief director of the Center for
BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas. “Policies and
practices that focus exclusively on age-related declines in
decision-making will unnecessarily curtail the autonomy of older adults
with preserved cognitive function. Age is not a disease, therefore
noticeable drops in mental decline warrant medical attention to
determine cause and best course of action. Maximizing cognitive
potential is possible across the lifespan.”
Among the study’s key findings are the following:
Healthy aging adults show no decline in decision-making - Older
decision-makers were as logically consistent as younger decision-makers.
Increased age alone — from the early 50s through the late 70s — was not
a key factor in predicting impaired decision-making capacity.
Strategic learning capacity may actually increase with age - All
three age groups were comparable as strategic learners. Those in their
70s performed at least as well as the 50s age group on a cognitive
measure of strategic learning. All groups performed similarly when asked
to filter the most relevant information from the extraneous.
Strategic learners are less likely to fall victim to bias toward
riskier options - Participants who performed well in sifting
important information on the strategic learning measure, a tool used by
researchers, made more logically consistent financial decisions. Those
who performed poorly on strategic learning were less logically
consistent and showed more bias toward riskier choices resulting in
potential financial gain or loss.
Conscientious decision-making intensifies with age – A
self-assessment revealed older decision-makers were more
conscientious (i.e., careful and organized) than those in the younger
Risk tolerance can be linked to cognitive ability - Overall,
men and women performed equally at logically consistent decision-making
and at strategic learning. In both men and women, strategic learning
proficiency was associated with the ability to make logically consistent
(risk averse) decisions.
There were differences between men and women in the relationship
between decision-making and traditional measures of cognitive function
- Men with average cognitive function demonstrated the highest
risk-seeking (lowest logical consistency) in decision-making of any
group. Men in the superior cognitive range were the most conservative
followed by women in the average cognitive range. Decision-making and
what impacts risk-aversion and risk-seeking are of particular interest
since women become the lead decision-makers later in life due to loss of
spouses and longer life spans.
The Healthy Brain, Healthy Decisions study, available
online, was conducted by the Center for BrainHealth at The
University of Texas at Dallas and the University of California, San
Francisco in partnership with the MetLife Mature Market Institute from
October 1, 2011 through June 30, 2012. A sample of 72 adults (31 men and
41 women) was recruited from the Dallas-Fort Worth community. Ages were
evenly divided between men and women within each of the three decades
(50s, 60s, and 70s).
Center for BrainHealth, University of Texas at Dallas
The Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas was
created in 1999 and is committed to its mission: To understand, protect
and heal the brain. With more than 60 fully-funded research projects,
the Center for BrainHealth has made major progress in understanding how
the brain adopts strategies to learn and reason, protecting the brain
from unnecessary cognitive decline, and healing the brain through
treatments and training programs that regenerate brain function. www.centerforbrainhealth.org
The MetLife Mature Market Institute®
Celebrating its 15-year anniversary in 2012, the MetLife Mature Market
Institute is Metropolitan Life Insurance Company's (MetLife) center of
expertise in aging, longevity and the generations and is a recognized
thought leader by business, the media, opinion leaders and the public.
The Institute's groundbreaking research, insights, strategic
partnerships and consumer education expand the knowledge and choices for
those in, approaching or working with the mature market.
The Institute supports MetLife's long-standing commitment to identifying
emerging issues and innovative solutions for the challenges of life.
MetLife, Inc. is a leading global provider of insurance, annuities and
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