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Senior moment - or just mulling a response?

Many seniors are actually just as mentally agile as younger people, they just focus on accuracy rather than speed when making a decision, new research says.
Many seniors are actually just as mentally agile as younger people, they just focus on accuracy rather than speed when making a decision, new research says.Getty Images stock

Seniors may be just as mentally agile as younger people. The reason their thinking appears sluggish is they mull things over longer, a new study shows.

Researchers have found that when people aged 60 and older are asked to make quick decisions, they respond as slowly as young children. And both groups react much more slowly than young adults, according to the study published in Child Development.

The slow response times in children are the sign of brains that are still maturing, said Roger Ratcliff, a study co-author and professor of behavioral and social sciences at Ohio State University. But the apparent sluggish thinking in the elderly may simply be the result of seniors emphasizing accuracy over speed when they deliberate.

The new research could have important repercussions for seniors worried that their thinking has become too slow to allow them to continue driving safely or performing other tasks that occasionally require quick reaction times. 

Ratcliff and his colleagues have been studying the impact of aging on mental agility for the last decade. In their new study, they looked at how seniors and other adults compare to children.

They ran several experiments designed to rate mental ability and agility across all ages. In one, for example, more than 300 study volunteers watched as a group of asterisks flashed up on a computer screen. The number of asterisks ranged anywhere from 31 to 70. The volunteers were told to quickly decide whether they’d been shown a small number (31 to 50) or a large number (51 to 70) of the star shaped marks.

When the researchers looked over the responses they found that response times and accuracy both improved with age, up to a point. Accuracy remained good even among older volunteers, but response times in general suffered as people got older.

Of course, in some cases, early dementia or the effects of medication may be the cause of slowing mental agility, but in healthy seniors, slow reaction times among the elderly can often be improved, Ratcliff said. In another set of experiments, he and his colleagues coached older volunteers to obsess less about accuracy and to focus more on speed.  In the end, his seniors were able to react just as quickly as college students.

Ratcliff suspects that other age related deficits, such as declining memories, make seniors less sure of themselves and that makes them want to deliberate longer so they won’t make mistakes.

“Older people don’t want to make errors, so what they do is adopt a more conservative decision criteria and that slows them down,” he explained.

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