Study shows: with age comes wisdom

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By Steve Elliott our Science and Health correspondent

Many people believe getting older means losing a mental edge, leading to poor decision-making.  But a new study from psychologists, led by Dr Darrell Worthy and Dr Todd Maddox at The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University, suggests older adults are far better at making choices that lead to long-term gain than younger adults.

By Steve Elliott our Science and Health correspondent

Many people believe getting older means losing a mental edge, leading to poor decision-making.  But a new study from psychologists, led by Dr Darrell Worthy and Dr Todd Maddox at The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University, suggests older adults are far better at making choices that lead to long-term gain than younger adults.

By examining how ageing affects decision-making, researchers concluded that older adults use the experience in decision-making accumulated over their lifetime to determine the long-term utility and not simply the immediate benefit before making a choice; whereas younger adults tend to focus their decision-making on instant gratification.

Dr Worthy said: “What we did, and what was new about this experiment, was that we had people perform tasks where the choices they made influenced what rewards were available in the future.  Specifically, participants performed decision-making tasks where they had two options, and each option differently affected the rewards available in future trials.”

One option was called the increasing option because it increased rewards in future trials, and the other was the decreasing option, which decreased awards in the future.  Significantly, the decreasing option also provided a larger immediate reward on each trial, so participants had to weigh the short-term benefits of the decreasing option with the long-term benefits of the increasing option.

Worthy added:  “What we found was that between those two situations, younger adults performed about the same, so they selected both options equally.  However, older adults tended to figure out which one — the increasing option or decreasing option — was better each situation, so they performed better in both of those tasks.”

The study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University reveals that adults aged 60+ strategise better their decision-making than young people in their late teens and early 20s, who tend to focus on instant gratification.

One experiment in the study with 28 older adults and 28 of their younger counterparts involved performing decision-making tasks rated by a points system.  Decision making that favoured immediate reward earned the test subjects most points.  Younger adults were better at selecting the options that yielded the best short-term rewards.

However, in a different experiment, involving 52 older adults (ages 67-82) and 51 younger adults (ages 20-26), the older subjects outperformed the younger where points were awarded when options giving the best long-term gains were favoured, i.e long-term rewards in the future.  One experiment involved an imaginary space mission to Mars – test subjects had to strategically store the highest amount of oxygen in “oxygen accumulators”. 

The test considered two possible oxygen extraction systems on the planet Mars.  The rewards depended on the respondents’ previous choices.  The respondents had to choose from two options: the “increasing option” which increased rewards in future trials, and the “decreasing option” which decreased future rewards but offered a larger immediate reward.  In each permutation of the experiment, the older participants outperformed the younger group by figuring out which option led to the most long-term cumulative rewards.

Dr Maddox said: “We found that younger adults performed equivalently in the experiment, but older adults were more adept at adjusting their strategy to fit the goals of the task.”

The researchers suggest the results indicate people physically use their brains differently as they age. 

Study researchers hypothesise that the cause of this phenomenon of brain change with age is the deterioration of the ventral striatum, a part of the brain utilised by young adults.  The ventral striatum is an area deep in the brain that’s involved in habit formation and procedural learning, so things like how to ride a bike or to remember to brush your teeth every morning are learned by this system.  That area is also implicated in assigning value to the immediate rewards you receive – any time you are rewarded or punished, the area becomes activated.”

As the ventral striatum deteriorates, the researchers theorise it is possible people compensate for this decline in ventral striatum function by using their prefrontal cortex – an area of the brain that controls rational and deliberate thought – or possibly a broader network of the frontal portions of the brain.

Dr Worthy said: “To test this theory, researchers have begun using neuro-imaging technology to track which parts of the brain react in the decision-making process.”

The Texas A&M and UT research team is conducting an MRI study, where participants’ brains are scanned as they engage in the dynamic decision-making tasks used in the study to determine the neural mechanisms behind the behavioural results.  Worthy said the team is hoping to find supporting evidence for a brain-ageing theory to determine the neural mechanisms behind the empirical behavioural results.

These findings contradict traditional negative stereotypes where people are thought to lose their mental edge and reasoning ability with age, showing in fact that older people can make better decisions under certain conditions.  The study gives insight into the decision-making process, which will help researchers learn more about the effects of ageing in the brain.

Dr Maddox said: “Broadly, these results suggest that younger adults may behave more impulsively, favouring immediate gains, while older adults are better at considering the long-term ramifications of their actions.”

Dr Worthy added: “Despite the neural declines of older adults, the expertise these individuals gain from having made numerous decisions throughout their entire lives allows for them to make better decisions in many real-world contexts.  This is especially true, he continued, when present decisions interact with future decisions, creating a sequence of decisions that often is more influential on outcomes than a solitary choice.”

Typical stereotypes about ageing people losing mental capabilities are unbalanced – people tend to notice the losses but not their accumulated gains.

Worthy continued: “This idea is similar to real-world situations where current choices, like what to major in during college or which retirement options to invest in, affect what people are able to do in the future.  Our study doesn’t at all suggest that older people have poor memory compared to young adults.”

One older adult, theatre and dance junior Graciela Reyna, believes it’s obvious common sense that older people would be better problem solvers.

“I feel almost like that’s stating the obvious.  The longer you live, the more experiences you have, and you would make better judgements. It’s a product of life.”

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So, you may well be an old fogey but by no means at all an old foggy.