If you work in the workplace learning-and-performance field, one of your jobs is to ensure that employees are maximizing their cognitive performance, their decision making, and their overall work output. If people's cognitive abilities decreased with age, that would be a problem. More importantly, if we can improve our employee's cognitive abilities, we have a responsibility to do just that. The benefits will accrue to our organizations and to our employees too (and probably then to their families and society at large).
This begs the following questions then:
- "Is there research in refereed scientific journals that provides evidence for cognitive decline as people age?"
- "Is there research in refereed scientific journals that provides evidence that we can help improve people's cognitive abilities as they age?"
I've created a short 4-item quiz for you to test your knowledge in this area. Take the quiz. When you are done it will return you directly to this blog post (is that cool or what)?
Take the Quiz. Test your Knowledge of Aging's Effect on Cognitive Ability.
Click here to take the quiz
HEY, what are you doing? Go take the quiz first. There's research to show that the sort of questions I ask in the quiz will actually help you remember this topic. Doh!
The article by Hertzog, Kramer, Wilson, and Lindenberger is in Volume 9—Number 1 in the refereed scientific journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest that was just published in 2009. The title of the article is: Enrichment Effects on Adult Cognitive Development Can the Functional Capacity of Older Adults Be Preserved and Enhanced?
HEY, really. Go take the quiz first!!
Both of my parents (75+) are doing everything right according to the article.
Cognitive ability does tend to decline with age. See graph from the article:
But notice that though AVERAGE cognitive ability declines there are wide ranges. And since I'm 51 years old as I write this, I'd like you to note that maximum cognitive performance seems highest near 50 years of age.
Can Cognitive Ability be Improved?
Yes, these researchers conclude that it can. Although they admit that more research is needed.
What Can Improve Cognitive Ability?
Well, they didn't look at everything that might impact cognitive ability, so we don't have a clear picture yet.
They highlighted the strongest findings in their conclusion:
They also noted some other more-tentative findings:
"...these data suggest that chronic psychological distress may contribute to late-life loss of cognition by causing neurodeteriorative changes in portions of the limbic system that help regulate affect and cognition, changes that do not leave a pathologic footprint (e.g., dendritic atrophy) or whose pathology is not recognizable with currently available methods. These changes, when extreme, might actually be sufficient to cause dementia, but it is more likely that they contribute to cognitive impairment and thereby increase the likelihood that other common age-related neuropathologies are clinically expressed as dementia" p. 36
1. What happens to most people's cognitive abilities as they age from 50 years onward? Answer: Declines with age.
2. Is there valid research evidence from scientific refereed journals that suggests that people can improve their cognitive outcomes by engaging in certain activities? Answer: Solid evidence, but still some controversy.
3. Which of the following have been shown to improve cognitive ability as people age. Answer: The article didn't cover all the territory, but the strongest evidence is for (1) mentally and intellectually challenging activities and (2) aerobic physical activity.
that you work for a company that consists of a substantial number of
workers over the age of 50. If you had a set budget to spend to improve
their cognitive functioning, which of the following investments would
garner the greatest results? Answer: Well, the research review does NOT compare the differences between (1) mentally challenging activities, (2) aerobic exercise, and (3) social engagement. However, see their overall conclusion below, which suggests that intellectual engagement and physically activity are key.Their overall conclusion:
for cognitive function, particularly for aspects of fluid intelligence and executive function. Recent neuroscience research on this topic indicates that exercise has substantial effects on brain morphology and function, representing a plausible brain substrate for the observed effects of aerobic exercise and other activities on cognition." p. 1
They cite the potential for training interventions:
But they offer a warning against one-shot interventions:
What do we have to do?
Well, if we take our job seriously, we ought to heed the research. We can improve our fellow employees cognitive abilities as they age, so we ought to figure out how we might support that.
I certainly haven't got this nailed but if your company is interested, I think it would be fascinating to see what we might do.